This week I saw two very different sides of the city of Flint.
On Tuesday, Genesee County community members gathered for a Michigan Radio sponsored community forum event to talk about the Flint water crisis. Most of them were concerned, angry, or a combination of the two.
Experts like Mark Edwards from Virginia Tech University and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Director of the Pediatric Residency Program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint answered questions from the audience. Many of them revolved around how the crisis has impacted kids and families. (You can listen to the full audio here).
Dr. Hanna-Attisha said lead in the water has left “irreversible lifelong multi generational impacts.” She said lead should never even reach children’s bodies because as soon as it does, “the damage is done.”
Many of the consequences will be felt in years to come, explained Dr. Hanna-Attisha. Lead exposure can drop IQ, cause hyperactivity, and cause health problems. “So imagine what we’ve done to an entire population - we’ve just shifted their IQ levels down,” she says. The city will likely see an increase in students needing remedial classes in the future.
Lead has also been linked to violent offenses. As Dr. Hanna-Attisha explains, “That’s the last thing the city of Flint needs.”
Between the water crisis, high rates of violence, and financial turmoil facing the city, Flint has had a tough year. I left Tuesday's event, like many people in attendance, pondering the question posed by one community member: "Do kids living in Flint even stand a chance?"
Last night, I saw a different side of the city.
I could hear applause erupting before I even neared the ballroom at the Riverfront Community Center in
downtown Flint. Friends and family were on their feet celebrating young people who had successfully completed TeenQuest's Pre-Employment Training.
TeenQuest is a 5 week program that teaches teens how to apply for a job, offers tips for landing an interview, and teaches how to feel comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. The goal is to give them the skills they need early to land a job later and decrease the chance they'll be living in poverty.
Students complete mock interviews with actual employers and get access to county area job fairs. The program is sponsored by the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce and is free to any young person living in the county, regardless of where they go to school.
Charles Dunn was a proud father last night as his daughter Jenayl crossed the stage. As a retired educator, Dunn used to tell the kids he taught to “never let anyone or anything stop you from achieving what you want in life.”
That can be easier said than done, especially with the barriers facing the Flint community. Dunn says a lot of children living in the city struggle with low self esteem because they lack of help and support. “Programs like this help children who don’t have much achieve and not get lost in the cracks.”
TeenQuest has a sister program for younger students, YouthQuest. With 15 sites in Genesee County, these programs serve thousands of kids a day. They’re in schools where 75-80% of students get free or reduced price lunch. Within the Flint city limits, that number is 100%.
Ariyanna is a 6th grader in the Holmes STEM YouthQuest program. She lives with her grandmother, who signed her up for the program to help her get things off her mind.
“She signed me up because she didn’t want me to think about my mom passing away and she didn’t want me to think about how I haven’t seen my dad since I was one. She just wanted me to have fun and not think about that kind of stuff.”
After school programs can provide both kids and parents with more peace of mind. “YouthQuest is a safe place with productive, enriching activities. And it’s free," explains Sharri Newman, YouthQuest program director. "That’s a huge benefit for parents who are concerned about finding care for their kids between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m.”
Newman says after school programs play a vital role in changing kids' perception of the community where they live. They've observed low morale in schools and a loss of pride amongst those living in the city.
"We take this as our responsibility to expose students and families to the opportunities that are out there," says Rhetta Hunyady, Vice President of Education & Training for the Chamber.
Which is largely why the programs put so much emphasis on engaging the Flint community, like offering a free Thanksgiving dinner for participants and families.
So, do kids living in Flint stand a chance? I'll let you decide.