A 2008 Northeastern University study found a sharp increase in homicides involving African-American youth, both as victims and perpetrators, between 2000 and 2007. The study found that risk spiked during the afterschool hours, indicating that afterschool hours are a peak time for juvenile crime for youth who do not have access to afterschool programs.

For the past three years the Greater Pittsburgh Afterschool Consortium has been coming together to provide a safe haven for area youth. On Oct. 18 they hosted the 3rd Annual “Playing for Unity” event at Manchester Youth Development Center, which brought together children in afterschool programs across Allegheny and Beaver Counties.

“All of us who have afterschool programs understand their importance,” said Melissa Strader, program director of MYDC. “Pittsburgh is so territorial that we wanted to get kids together from other areas.”

The local event is part of the national “Lights On Afterschool” initiative aimed at increasing federal investment in afterschool programming. More than 9000 sites around the country participate in the annual event now in its 13th year.

Congress is currently considering legislation that would divert afterschool program funding by allowing other programs to compete for 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds. The No Child Left Behind Act authorized $2.5 billion for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers in 2007, but today the government has allocated less than half of that amount for the program.

GPAC’s event brought together approximately 150 students in grades 1-6 from MYDC, Citizens Against Domestic Apartheid programs, and the Mooncrest Afterschool Program.

“We have a lot of single family homes; they need somewhere safe for their kids,” said Strader. “A lot of schools are struggling with kids who are at different academic levels, so they can get academic support and social support as kind of an extension of the school day.”

GPAC is a collaboration of afterschool programs, initiated by the POISE Foundation and Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise. Nova Chemicals has served as the primary sponsor of the event for the past three years.

“We’re giving them an opportunity to meet kids from different communities,” said PACE Executive Director Lucille Dabney. “Ideally I think it’s a time to continue that intellectual development. And also the safety issues, that they’re not going home to a house where they’re by themselves.”

Activities throughout the evening included board games, word games and hip-hop musical chairs in an effort to help promote healthy, fun competition between the students.

“It’s an excellent way to give the children a sense of belonging. Their attendance in school has improved. Their grades have improved. It also gives them a sense of pride,” said Senior Rene Procopio from the Mooncrest Afterschool Program.

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