Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.
COLUMBIA — A lot of people want to help you grow up here.
“Even in the midst of tough times, there are assets in the community for youth to succeed,” Youth Community Coalition coordinator Ryan Worley, said.
That's what made Columbia one of "100 Best Communities for Young People" in the United States in 2011 — an award by the organization of America’s Promise Alliance.
There are still problems. While there is so much positive work for youth, “interlaced with that there’s a lot of real stuff that happens here,” Worley said.
Like violence, poverty, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse, he said.
This year has been marked by the death of two teens, and a rash of shots fired recently, which police say is "gang related." In March, Columbia mourned the loss of DeAudre Johnson, a 17 year-old Douglass High School student, an innocent bystander killed in a shooting. This month, another young man, Bryan Rankin, 17, was shot and killed outside a party.
Persistent poverty is gaining attention. Almost 40 percent of students in Columbia Public Schools qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and Heart of Missouri United Way recently decided it will shift its funding focus to young people and families to promote education, financial stability, health care and a stronger safety net.
“In looking at the problems that a lot of agencies deal with in our community, the United Way felt that we were putting Band-Aids on problems and dealing with the results of problems, but not the causes,” said Karla DeSpain, head of the agency's Education Advisory Board.
Some challenges are quiet. Children and teens in Columbia face daily obstacles that keep the city from being the most nurturing place it could be. Activities, dealing with stress, responsible adults and transportation are a few gaps that people in Columbia identified as not being as readily available as possible for young people.
Worley said one word defines the challenges: access. That means asking questions such as: Can young people get things they need — mental health counseling, for example — or take advantage of things they want — like interesting after-school activities? Or is something like transportation, money or adult support missing?
"It just goes down to what are the true needs in our community, what are the resources we have," Worley said. "How well are we matching up those needs with those assets?"
Columbia is much more fun than New Madrid County, where Steven Grissom, 18, moved from last May. The Hickman student is a regular at the Armory, where he plays games, jokes around with the staff and learns to DJ.
“Most kids here, they would say there’s nothing to do, there’s no way to be successful,” Grissom said. "Whatever they're thinking, they're wrong."
Under a blue sky one Saturday, three young men skateboard in the parking lot of the Columbia Mall.
Instead of trying kick flips at the crowded city skate park, they skate in front of Target, before getting shooed away. Then they play a version of the game horse, called Skate, in the lanes between parked cars.
With a board covered in names of his favorite musicians, Orlando Strickland, 13, said Columbia can be boring and his weekend routine of movies, mall, skatepark and the city recreation center will get old eventually.
Inside the mall, five girls evaluate Hollister shirts and thumb their phones. Gentry Middle School seventh-grader Curnesha Stewart said Columbia needs a cheaper cheerleading squad.
“I love being on stage, showing off,” she said.
Curnesha went to practice with a squad once, but the program, including the $175 uniform, “was just too high” she said, and she never went again.
“She’s been wanting to dance since forever," Curnesha's mom, Tina Simpson, said. "I called so many organizations and it does cost a lot. If you’re not financially ready, being a single parent, then there’s no way your kid can do it."
At home in the garage, Curnesha found a way to perform for free. For five years, she's gathered neighborhood kids in her own squad called the "LOL Girls," Simpson said.
"They’ll play music and I just let them go," she said. "They have a dance routine and a pledge that they say."
It's written on a big poster board on the wall: "One nation, one girl. Heaven, fun and all living life and being strong. Stand tall, dance until you fall. LOL Girls are the best with justice and all."
Simpson recently enrolled Curnesha in the Boys & Girls Club, which is more affordable. Next year Curnesha will go to Oakland Junior High School and try out for its cheerleading team.
Dealing with stress
"I am one of the most stressed people I know,” Rock Bridge High School junior and honors student Maria Kalaitzandonakes said. It’s self-induced stress, although she said her parents push hard.
“When I get an A-minus I freak out because I’m afraid I won’t be able to succeed," she said.
About 30 percent of Hickman and Rock Bridge high-schoolers said they had “a lot” of stress in their lives, according to the 2011 Adolescent Health Needs Assessment of Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The No. 1 stressor for high school students surveyed was school and academics, followed by “thinking about the future.”
Kalaitzandonakes said she’s lucky not to have to work, “but I have a ton of friends that have to take care of their siblings, or work a 40-hour week on top of school."
Family was listed as the third highest source of stress in the survey.
It’s easy to take your parents' heartache about money for bills and groceries as your own, Douglass High School junior LaShawnTay Soil said.
“You’re always trying to find things to make it better,” she said. “You’re just as stressed as your parents are.”
She’s learned to manage her money wisely and not let home finances worry her.
“Don’t make things harder for yourself,” she said.
In the health department's research, teens often talked about how the demands of life kept them from eating right or exercising. Our "fast paced society" contributes a lot to young peoples' feelings of stress, Maureen Coy, who led the health department's research, said.
“It’s really good to have some of the instantaneous technology we have, but it has a downside, too,” she said. “Everything is moving so fast, which could cause a lot of stress and that could lead to various health issues."
The research suggested a gap in mental health services for young adults. High school students frequently responded that they didn't have a person or a place to help them when they were stressed out, Coy said.
There is an effort under way to get a quarter-cent sales tax for youth mental health services on the ballot this November. It’s the third time the issue has been raised since 1994.
In August, MU’s Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs analyzed surveys from 21 different agencies and found that hundreds of children were turned away or on the waiting list for mental health programs last year, including 357 children turned away from or on the waiting list for counseling and therapy.
The tax would fund services such as temporary shelter for youth, outpatient chemical dependency and psychiatric treatment programs, and professional counseling and therapy.
Relationships with responsible adults
There’s a difference between an after-school tutor and an uncle that cares about you. Soil said she remembers being in programs where “I would look up to the teenage tutor, then they’d be gone and you’d never see them again.”
She said what teens really need are people who will be there to teach them positive life lessons.
“Kids my age are going head first into the grown-up world and don’t really know what they’re doing,” Soil said. “They don’t have a positive role model year-round.”
It's hard to find a lot of adults with their act together, Parks and Recreation Youth Sports Coordinator Camren Cross said. Some teens he's around "know people in jail, way too often," he said, and adults around them are "making bad choices over and over."
Adults need to nurture young people from day one. United Way Education Advisory Council head, Karla DeSpain, said kids need someone to simply talk to them when they’re young, and teach them colors and numbers. Regardless of income and race, “a responsible adult in a child’s life is crucial,” she said.
Kalaitzandonakes loves Columbia. Her blog is devoted to the city’s smallest virtues. One thing, though, is off the list.
“Teenagers can’t get places they want to go,” she said.
A lot of them don’t take the bus at night, don’t have a car or don’t have money for gas, Kalaitzandonakes said.
Other teens find ways to get around on their own: Steven Grissom walks, Orlando Strickland skateboards, Curnesha Stewart gets rides from her mom, dad or grandma.
Transportation is a problem for after-school programs like Fun City.
“We only have one van and we can only have 13 passengers on it,” coordinator Consuela Johnson said.
Right now there are five children who don’t regularly come to the program because their mom can’t bring them in and there’s no room in the van.
A working group on public transit has been gauging what teens think about the bus system and will present its findings to City Council. Worley of the Youth Community Coalition said the most common feedback is that young people want to keep fares under $1, longer bus hours and bus stops in more areas.