Making an IMPACT in North Richmond

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For the teens and young adults who gathered on a rainy day last week in North Richmond, life has been a succession of struggles and temptations.

Jobs are nearly nonexistent in this forgotten neighborhood, which straddles city and county dividing lines. But violence and crime are omnipresent. Shootings occur almost daily. A local market’s wall serves as a makeshift memorial to those who have been felled by local violence.

But on this day, the future seemed a little brighter.

“One decision can be the wrong decision anytime in life out here, and that’s it,” said Darvone Crenshaw, who has lived all of his twenty years in North Richmond. “But right now I am feeling like I can get through the obstacles in my life.”

Crenshaw was one of about 15 local students honored May 17 for completing a three-month  life skills course taught by instructors from Project IMPACT, an empowerment group was launched by ex-inmates of California penitentiaries in the late 1990s. The program is funded by the Operation of Neighborhood Safety, a city agency established in 2007. Its curriculum ranges from human nature and ethics to violence prevention, addiction and healthy relationships, said Project IMPACT staff member Leonard Neal.

Inside a small community center in the 1600 block of N. Jade Street, youths sat around tables adorned with paper hats and decorations congratulating grads.

Several of the instructors for Project IMPACT, which stands for “Incarcerated Men Putting Away Childish Things,” addressed the graduates. “We are here to give back, and the first place you go to give back is in your home community,” Neal told the graduates. “This is where we can make a difference.”

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin was also on hand, and addressed the program graduates before certificates were handed out. McLaughlin talked about when she lived in Chicago and Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, a social justice and jobs program, rose to national prominence in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I remember when Rev. Jesse Jackson said to the crowd ‘I am somebody! We are somebody!’” McLaughlin said. “And that’s what we in Richmond have to remember. We are somebody … we together are somebody, and we’re somebody special.”

North Richmond is one of the most depressed and crime-plagued sections of the Richmond, which in 2009 FBI records revealed was the nation’s second-most dangerous city. On the day of the graduation, a curbside memorial for 23-year-old Sharanda Thomas, a pregnant mother of two who was shot and killed in February, still stood on Seventh Streets, a few blocks south of the ceremony.

But at the event, Gary Griffin, 21, was as happy as he could remember, he said. A high school dropout and father of an infant daughter, Griffin said the program had given him new optimism. He has lived in North Richmond all his life.

“This program has helped my confidence,” Griffin said. “It’s made me want to do something more than what I have been doing, and that’s a big change for me.”

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