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VOL. 121 | NO. 211 | Friday, October 27, 2006

In Pursuit of L.I.F.E.

Despite everyday struggles, plans are afoot to combat problems for low-income families

By Rosalind Guy

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THE STUFF OF LIFE: Single mother Donna Bogan walks her sons Dylan and Daylin to school. She has no help from immediate family and little to none from the boys' fathers. -- Photo By Zachary Zoeller

Editor's Note: The following stories comprise the second part of a special series on the state of children in Memphis and Shelby County. To read yesterday's pieces, visit www.memphisdailynews.com.

Like many single mothers, Donna Bogan's day starts well before the sun comes up.

She gets out of bed every morning about an hour before the alarm goes off at 6:45, when it's time for her two young sons to wake up for school.

In the dawn of the day, she thinks as she sips a cup of coffee. She thinks about how she'd like to be able to provide a better life for her children - something better than the family's one-bedroom apartment on Porter Street.

But with the blare of the alarm, those thoughts are swept aside as she moves into action. She wakes Dylan, 9, and Daylin, 7, to help them get ready. After she makes sure they've brushed their teeth, washed their faces and gotten dressed, she allows them to watch "Curious George" and "Clifford the Big Red Dog" on public television.

Around 7:45 a.m., they all leave the house and walk to Georgia Avenue School at 690 Mississippi Blvd., where Dylan is in the fourth grade and Daylin is in the second.

Day after day, Bogan treks through life alone, doing the best she can to care for her children. She and her kids live alone. Neither of her sons' fathers helps out. She only receives a weekly child support check from Dylan's father. It's for $39.
It's been years since the children have seen their fathers. And Bogan receives little to no help from her immediate family.

"I don't get any support from my family," she said. "I struggle every day of my life, honey."

Long day's journey

Bogan, 29, has been on her own since her mother, Ardine, died of a brain aneurism more than 12 years ago.

Right after her mother's death, Bogan was shuffled around from one relative's house to another. But she soon found herself on her own.

She was 20 years old and living in a homeless shelter when she became pregnant with her first child.

While some of the circumstances of her life are unique, her status as a single parent is not, according to the results of a recent study by the local Urban Child Institute called "The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County."

Forty-six percent of children in Memphis live with single parents, the study found. And younger children in Memphis are more likely than older children to live in families headed by single females.

"A lot of these people want to do a better job taking care of their children," said Barbara Holden, executive director of the First Years Institute, which is within The Urban Child Institute. "Some just need a little guidance."

Bogan said a better life for herself and her children will begin when she completes the classes she's taking.

To qualify for her monthly $142 in Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) check, she attends computer classes at Galloway United Methodist Church at 1015 S. Cooper St.

Right now, she's learning basic computer operation. The course lasts 10 weeks. Already, she's taken the job readiness portion, in which the students learn job readiness skills, how to compose resumes and AIDS awareness.

When she's finished, Bogan said she would like to get a job working with computers.

Bolstering support systems

It's the difficulty involved in raising children alone that motivates much of the community service work of Pastor Frederick D. Tappan, senior pastor of Eureka True Vine Baptist Church at 238 W. Levi Road.

Tappan recently formed the L.I.F.E. (Life Improved through Faith and Empowerment) Development Corp., through which he plans to offer resources and services to people who, like Bogan, want to do better but sometimes just don't know where to start.

"It's so important to pick people up where they are," Tappan said. "And a lot of people need basic skills."

The L.I.F.E. by LIFE Initiative, which envelopes the scope of the program Tappan envisions, involves programs "that meet people where they are."

And through the development corporation, which operates as a separate entity from his church, Tappan wants to lease the former Walker Elementary School at 322 King St. from Memphis City Schools. The nonprofit organization currently is in contact with school officials in hopes of negotiating a $1-per-year lease, as has been the case with other public buildings up for public use.

Walker Elementary School was one of the schools closed last year because of low attendance and the fact that a study conducted from 1990 to 2000 showed the population in the area had declined, a Memphis City Schools spokesman said.

Students from Walker Elementary were sent to nearby Ford Road Elementary at 3336 Ford Road.

Walker Elementary was one of the sites MCS used last year as a shelter after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when people from the Gulf Coast were arriving in Memphis seeking emergency housing.

The school currently is empty.

Empty building, full dreams

If Tappan is successful at acquiring the former school property, it will house resources for people living in and around the 38109 ZIP code, which includes Tappan's church. The resources will include programs that target three groups in the neighborhood: youths, working adults and senior citizens.

Each of the resources falls under an umbrella category. Financial empowerment resources will include credit counseling, career training and a small business incubator. Under the Senior Services umbrella will be transportation, food services and insurance and legal counseling. Tappan also plans to install a whirlpool in the facility for physical therapy.

And for the youth, tutoring, abstinence counseling and a youth employment program all are planned.

One of Tappan's aspirations is a teen court, over which a real judge might preside. If it happens, the court will operate similar to one in Colorado Springs, Colo., designed to give a second chance to first-time offenders of misdemeanor crimes.

In other words, if a teen steals a yard ornament valued at $125, the judge or jury of his peers may determine that he or she should perform community service valued at $125.

"The child will appear in court before the judge," Tappan said. "And the decision will be binding."

'Not your typical pastor'

Some call Tappan an ambitious and visionary pastor who wants to do all he can to help people in the community.

"He's not your typical pastor," said Aubrey Thompson, one of the associate ministers at Eureka True Vine and also a L.I.F.E. Development Corp. board member.

At a development corporation meeting in September, Tappan's excitement was visible and contagious as he discussed a "check-up, stay-up" program, in which someone would go into schools periodically to make sure children are keeping up with their schoolwork.

"Some parents work two to three jobs," Tappan said, adding the parents need that extra help.

This is not new territory for Tappan.

More than 20 years ago, he and his wife, Regina, formed the Memphis Area Youth Association (MAYA), in which young girls ages 6 to 18 participate in cheerleading and dance activities.

Seeing children in their community walking up and down the streets with nothing to keep them occupied, the couple started the nonprofit organization to recruit neighborhood children for sports, cheerleading and gymnastics.

The program began with the girls cheering for the basketball team Frederick was coaching. But over the years, the focus for the girls became performing competitively.

And the Tappans count their efforts a success. In the more than 23 years they've been working with the children, not one of the girls has ended up pregnant, they said.

Three cheers for good fun

"Every time we go to competition, at least one of our groups wins," bragged Coach Casendra Thomas.

The girls are divided into groups based on their grade in school. For cheerleading, there are four groups, ranging from kindergarten to ninth grade; for dance, there are three groups ranging from fourth to twelfth grade.

Thomas, who has been on the Redbirds Dance Team and the University of Memphis Pom Squad, has coached the girls for 11 years.

Known as the Memphis All-Stars, the girls placed first in December for the second year in a row in the World Cheerleading Association competition in Nashville.

Besides winning, Thomas said the girls enjoy numerous benefits.

"They're getting prepared for college - to get scholarships - and there's an overall benefit socially, emotionally, and they get to travel to a lot of different places," she said.

Another component that will be added to the program is community service, Regina said. "For the girls in high school, we want to help them be eligible for scholarships."

No man is an island

In another part of the city, as housing projects are being torn down, families are being built up - starting with parents.

As work is being done to rebuild on the former site of the Lamar Terrace housing project on Crump Boulevard, the heads of household, primarily women, are going through programs designed to empower them.

"We didn't want to just put up another housing project that looked like another housing project," said Ruby Bright, executive director of The Women's Foundation for A Greater Memphis. "We wanted something to support the community."

That something involves the community support component of the HOPE VI project.

In partnership with the Memphis Housing Authority and the city's Division of Housing and Community Development, the Women's Foundation has raised $3.5 million in the last 16 months toward providing case workers whose sole goal it is to prepare women for self-sufficiency when they move back into the newly built developments. The goal is to raise $7.3 million for the four-year program.

"We figure that the way the plan is, that by the time the people are ready to move back, they will have had time to get many of the things taken care of, including stable employment," Bright said.

To show how goal-oriented the case workers are, Bright talks about one woman in the program who is in her forties, has an associate's degree and has worked at FedEx.

"She's worked at several major companies and just hasn't been able to stay there for some reason," Bright said.

Through the woman's IDP (individual development plan) interview, her caseworker discovered it was a self-esteem issue.

"She did not like the way she looked," Bright said. "She needed some dental work, and she was embarrassed about that."

The woman had tried to get it taken care of before, but the work she needed was so extensive she couldn't afford it.

"It needed professional assistance at a higher level," Bright said.

Her caseworker was able, through partnerships the Women's Foundation has formed with various organizations, to help the woman get the help she needed.

Mining the data

As it considered raising the $7.3 million for case management and other services, the foundation didn't want to just throw money at the problem, Bright said.

Instead, the residents will be tracked throughout the duration of the program and their progress will be documented. Each head of household is required to complete an individual development plan designed to target everything from health care needs to assessing employment readiness. From that point, it can be determined what must happen to make participants employable.

For example, while someone may be working to get a GED, other issues are being addressed, as well.

"What would make you not desirable as a hire - those things are being worked on at the same time, so that by the time (participants) get out of training, they're employable," Bright said. "Then there's another organization that's finding them employment or an internship. So it's just working through their plan."

The board receives monthly updates on participants' progress.

The July report shows 145 households were moved from the Lamar Terrace housing project. Of those, 120 heads of household had completed an individual development plan. Eighty-nine of those fell within the caseload for people ages 19 to 64, and 51 had been placed in new jobs since January 2005.

As of August, the number of people who'd completed an IDP was 123. Twenty of them had completed their interim goals and 51 had new job placements since January 2005. Seventeen had been employed for 180 days or more.

Only one was involved in job skills training.

And not only do the case workers track what's going on with the adults, they also track the children.

Case managers contacted all families with school-age children before the start of the school year to identify and resolve anything that might prevent parents from sending their children to school.

The reports that are issued show what schools and grades the children are enrolled in.

Seeing, being, uplifting

It's interesting to note the difference in the population demographics for public housing developments Lamar Terrace and Dixie Homes, Bright said.

The people in Dixie Homes are much older, "so you have some issues around their ability to be employed," she said.

Because of the different demographics, the problem must be approached from a different angle.

Through the tracking system, the goal is to make sure that everyone who wants to be helped can receive that help.

"We're one year into our four-year project," Bright said. "And we're working to help them to see their possibilities."

Seeing possibilities is the motivation behind the L.I.F.E. by LIFE Initiative, as well.

One board member, Richard Mack, who has served as a probation officer with adults as well as with teenagers in Tall Trees Youth Guidence School on Lamar Ave. - a 63-bed, non-secure, juvenile facility for the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County - said when he worked there, he came to realize he was working with parents as well as their children.

"The problem is not the kids," Mack said. "It's starting with the kids, but that's because there's a void there - a void with the parents."

So board members try to be active in filling the void.

"One of the greatest weapons we have against crime is prevention," Thompson said at a recent board meeting.

Both Thompson and Mack have worked as probation officers, and both have heard the sentiment from the young men in the system: "If I had the chance to do something else, I would."

"We have so many needs," Frederick Tappan said. "And this is where we're starting."

There's no word yet on the acquisition of the Walker Elementary School property. But Tappan said when he does receive word, he plans to call a press conference to announce the full scope of the board's intentions.

Until then, many of the resources he plans for the school will be available through the church.

"We want it now," Tappan said. "We want to meet people where they are and help lift them up."

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 0 131 1,047
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 20 39 190
BUILDING PERMITS 0 305 3,056
BANKRUPTCIES 17 135 753
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 53 329
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0