How programming in Clark Park is turning neighborhood kids into engaged citizens

Clark Park is an oasis of green in its densely packed neighborhood in Southwest Detroit. Visit on a spring afternoon and you might see children at a birthday party, older people walking, teens practicing soccer, and a steady stream of people going into and out of the clubhouse for any number of events.
The common thread is that people are connecting to each other and to their community. It's the sense of connection the drives people to take ownership of the place around them and do things like vote, volunteer, and generally be engaged citizens.
Creating civic engagement is what the W.K. Kellogg Foundation was considering when they funded a story hour and a games hour for families of young children at the park.
"We wanted to support their programming that supports children," says Aileen Webb, director of Michigan programs for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, about what's happening at Clark Park.
Every week, children -- from babies to five-year-olds -- gather with their families to read books, sing songs, and spend time together. The ideas is simple: foster early literacy and pro-social behavior.
Reading to children from a young age is immensely beneficial to early literacy, Webb says. Since many of the families that use Clark Park are bilingual or learning English, ESL services are made available to the parents at the same time the children's story hour is happening, which encourages literacy in both languages.
Preschool-age children also can participate in a variety of programs at Clark Park, including T-ball, summer lunches through Meet Up and Eat Up, summer nutrition classes though the National Kidney Foundation, and a learn-to-skate program during the winter months.
These kinds of activities, which introduce kids to children their own age outside of their own families, help kids learn pro-social behavior. That is defined as any behavior intended to benefit another, regardless of motivation, says Dr. Mary Lewis, a professor of psychology at Oakland University.
The younger you can teach this kind of behavior to children, the better, she says. "That is the time when children are just beginning to gain what we call theory of mind, where they learn to work as part of a community."
Teaching pro-social behavior starts at home but is practiced among groups of children, often beyond the intervention of adults.
"It focuses a child's attention on the experience of a potential beneficiary," says Lewis. "If you can teach child how to alleviate that concern of another, that translates to kids who are more empathic and more pro-social as children, and there are incredible benefits to being pro-social as young adults."
Young adults who have learned pro-social behavior have better interpersonal skills and relationship skills, and are better adjusted socially and mentally, Lewis says.
While teaching children to think of others and learn to operate as part of a group benefits them individually, it has incredible effects on the community around them, which is what the Kellogg foundation wanted to support.
"The foundation is active in supporting opportunities to reinforce civic infrastructure, which is a fancy way to say helping people to live and work together," says Webb. "We need Detroit, in all of its neighborhoods, to have a very strong social infrastructure."
A strong social infrastructure is exactly what brought Clark Park to where it is today. In the early 1990s, the park was overridden with crime and drugs, but the neighborhood banded together to drive out the criminal element and make the park safer.
Then came another blow: the city wanted to close the park entirely. In response, a group of neighbors evolved into the Clark Park Coalition, taking over maintenance of the park from the city and breathing new life into it with programs. Eventually the all-volunteer group became a full-fledged nonprofit and is now in charge of all programming at the park. There are sports leagues, summer camps, senior activities and the story hour, among many other activities, that draw all ages to Clark Park and create opportunities for people to meet across generational or neighborhood lines.
"Our mission is to really raise kids into productive members of society and look at the whole child," says Steve Tobocman, former state representative and chair of the Clark Park Coalition Board. "We have unique connections to many kids, and whatever that connection is, it's an opportunity to make a difference."
Kate Brennan, the business manager for the Clark Park Coalition, says the park has become a safe and vibrant asset to the neighborhood since the Clark Park Coalition took over the programming. "We believe Clark Park is the town square of the community," she says.
Aileen Webb says it's the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's goal to foster that kind of environment for engagement. "We want that opportunity for all the children of Detroit so it becomes the norm."

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the 
W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.
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