SOUND MIND, SOUND BODY: Keep kids busy to keep them safe

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Although it's only midsummer, it's already time to begin thinking of after-school activities for youths in our community. According to the Afterschool Alliance (afterschoolalliance.org), between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on school days are the peak hours for teens to commit crimes, be in or cause car crashes, be victims of crime and smoke, drink and use drugs.

Also, the gap between work and school schedules amounts to as much as 25 hours per week, which presents working parents with the challenge of finding someone to care for their children while they're at work. Nationwide, statistics show between 2 million and 6 million youngsters under 13 regularly care for themselves, and 44 percent of families don't have any regular after-school care for their children.

Mike Humphreys, who served as sheriff in Walla Walla County for 13 years before retiring at the end of 2010, said he often wondered while on patrol where a kid was going, what he's going to do if his parents aren't home. Humphreys found kids often don't have anything to do when they get home and there's nobody there because parents are working.

"They look for things to do to keep active, and some of them aren't legal," he said.

"Youth programs are important because they help police do their jobs better because there's not as many crimes taking place," Humphreys said. Studies show that quality is important, as well. According to an article created for the nationwide campaign Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, quality after-school programs can be expected to reduce juvenile crime in two ways:

1) Immediate "Safe Haven and Control" Effects.

After-school programs provide responsible adult supervision, constructive activities and insulation from deleterious pressure from peers and older children during high-risk hours.

2) Values and Skills Effect.

Quality after-school programs can be expected to have an enormous impact on the attitudes, values and skills of participating children.

After-school programming and gang prevention are the community's responsibility.

Walla Walla police Detective Saul Reyna, who has worked in the gang unit for 10 years said, "There needs to be positive things out there for our youth to do, some positive programming, because if there aren't positive role models or positive influences, and our kids are left with idle time, we are at risk of something negative, i.e., gangs or other at-risk behaviors.

"Organizations such as Commitment to Community and the YMCA need to work together to provide programs in which kids feel welcome. Often, gang members, for instance, feel alienated -- as if they don't belong."

According to a study by Wellesley College, children spend only about one hour in school for every five hours awake. How they spend the other four hours, not surprisingly, plays a major role in their development. Quality programs help children learn the skills they need to succeed academically, gain experience in serving their communities and develop the attitudes, values and skills to contribute as good neighbors, family members and citizens.

The same study also said self-care and boredom can increase the likelihood that a young person will experiment with drugs and alcohol by as much as 50 percent.

Boredom can also account for children participating in crime or lead to potential gang affiliation. As Reyna put it: "Kids, when they're bored, oftentimes we find when they get excited about joining gangs or hanging out with gang kids, it's because they want be a part of something, they want to be accepted.

"As soon as they become a gang member or join a gang they have instant recognition; that's who they are, instant identity. If they're bored the gangs prey on that."

Such kids also want excitement. Gangs can offer that, even though it's negative and criminal, Reyna added.

According to the Afterschool Alliance, of all violent crime arrests nationwide in 2005, 16 percent (or 2 million arrests) involved juveniles under the age of 18.

Our community can benefit greatly by an overall reduction in the local crime rate facilitated by proper after-school programming. At the YMCA we provide scholarships for children who cannot afford to participate in programs because no child should be denied the opportunity. A lot of children need a chance and we provide that chance.

I once heard a kid say he thought he had mononucleosis for an entire year and it turned out he was just really bored.

OK, a kid didn't say that, it's from the movie "Wayne's World." But as a community we have a true void to fill and are off to a great start at the Y with a wide range of after-school programs.

Alyssa Latham is youth development director at the Walla Walla YMCA.

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