A big white van pulls up in the church parking lot, and out pour what look to be seven typical African-American teenage boys, several with ear buds in place.
But as they talk to each other, it’s clear their heritage is a little different. They are speaking Kirundi, the language of Tanzania and Burundi, the African countries where they were born.
Most also are on parole or probation after run-ins with the law.
They are at 15th Avenue Christian Church, Rock Island, to work in two large vegetable gardens. The hoeing and harvesting is part of a court-ordered program aimed at getting them back on a productive path and keeping them out of jail.
The 10-week pilot program called RISE UP began in June through the efforts of Jana Haskins, unit chief of juvenile probation for Rock Island County Court Services. RISE UP stands for Rock Island Services for Empowerment, Unity and Progress.
A year ago, Haskins was reviewing cases in her office when she noticed an uptick in offenses by refugee and immigrant youth. She also noticed that when these young offenders enrolled in existing programs through Arrowhead Ranch or the Youth Services Bureau, “they were not getting the same benefit” as others, she said.
“It didn’t have the same impact, the same outcome.”
She began contacting community members to see if a program could be developed that would be more successful in reaching this particular population.
RISE UP has the boys working in the gardens for two hours a day, four days a week, to teach them a useful skill, and also responsibility, how to work in a group and how to take instruction from authority.
On Friday of each week they attend class sessions on various life topics. One day, for example, they toured Augustana College and heard about career planning and student loans. Another day, they listened to a representative of Greenpath Financial Wellness talk about all things money — why it’s not good to go into debt and how to plan for buying a car or a house.
Immigrant/refugee success stories
A week ago, they heard from three refugee men who have built successful careers in the United States. To a man, they pleaded with the youth to take the opportunities they have and build on them and to not throw their lives away.
Ekalino Awour, a welder at Deere & Co., for example, relayed how there was no hope in his country of South Sudan. But in America, he said, “Here you have hope.”
But, he added, “there is nothing to fall from the sky to come in your mouths. You have to work hard. You have to do everything you can. And then you achieve.”
“It’s not color or not color. It’s heart. If you use your heart and your mind, you become great guys.”
A goal of the Friday classes was to make the boys feel “less isolated, to let them know that there are people, agencies and faith-based groups that care and want them to be successful,” Haskins said.
For showing up and doing what was required, the boys earned $10 a day, or a potential of $500 over the summer.
Butoyi Stire, 15, of Tanzania, said during the recent work day that he was happy to have the opportunity to earn money and “learn things.”
As he set to picking tomatoes, he took his shoes off because he didn’t want them to get muddy. He wasn’t so concerned about his socks, he said.
The boys’ future, next year
RISE UP is a collaborative effort of Rock Island County Court Services, Broadway Presbyterian Church, 15th Avenue Christian, the Rock Island Urban Gardeners and the Quad-Cities Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, or QCAIR.
Major funding came from the Doris and Victor Day Foundation, Rock Island, the Quad-City Health Initiative, the Christian Church of Illinois and Wisconsin, and numerous entities, programs and individuals, Haskins said.
All told, about $10,150 was taken in, and almost all will be spent, she said. Expenses included payment to the participants, salaries for two site supervisors, supplies and daily lunch.
More than 500 pounds of produce was harvested and donated to Café on Vine, Davenport, a nonprofit that serves a daily lunch to the needy.
RISE UP is a pilot program, and after it’s over — graduation is Friday — organizers will do an evaluation and decide whether to offer it again next year.
Based on what she’s seen so far, Haskins is almost certain the program will be back. It also may expand.
“Some have really blossomed into leaders,” she said of the participants.
Among the objective measures of success are whether any of the boys committed new crimes during the course of the program, whether they are enrolled and attending school, and whether they have gotten jobs, she said.
They also took skills assessment tests at the beginning of the program that will be compared with tests asking the same questions at the end of the program.
Graduates will be tracked through the court system; Haskins said successful completion likely will result in a 25 percent reduction of probation time.
But organizers of RISE UP also want to keep in touch with the boys on a personal level.
Each boy has at least one more year of high school or other educational program to complete, and organizers hope to develop a one-on-one mentoring program so that the youth will have someone to call if they need to talk.
“I think it’s a critical piece that they have someone to call,” Haskins said.