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Task force plants seeds of community renewal ; Garden at School 18 is key to pilot project

Tulips and tiger lilies. Pansies and petunias. Marigolds and mums.

A vacant city lot on Hampshire Street across from School 18 may be transformed into a blooming garden this summer with the help of students, parents, educators and residents.

The larger goal -- if the pilot project is successful -- is to transform the neighborhood and to provide a model that can be replicated across the city to fight violence and blight by making kids stakeholders in their communities.

Osman Musse -- one of the summer school students who will be starting the garden -- is looking forward to planting his favorites: roses and sunflowers.

"We need this for our school. It will make our community look good," said the 11-year-old.

The community garden is the most recent endeavor by the West Side Youth Violence Task Force and is part of a larger initiative to clean up vacant lots and properties. The group is working with Grass Roots Gardens, a local organization that provides insurance on vacant city lots for volunteer beautification efforts. Other programs are aimed at curbing youth violence, increasing home ownership rates and improving literacy.

The task force, which started last fall, is the brainchild of Marian T. Deutschman, a communications professor at Buffalo State College, and Buffalo Police Lt. Donna M. Berry.

While seated next to each other at the Irish Classical Theater one evening last year, the two began talking. Berry was concerned that kids who become involved in violence and gang activity are getting younger and younger.

"Gangs are recruiting children as young as the fourth grade," said Berry, who lives and works in the community targeted by the task force. "It is my neighborhood. I take it personally. A lot of kids at 18 have been involved directly or indirectly with violence."

As as result of the conversation at the theater, the task force was formed. About 50 people are involved, including representatives from Buffalo State College, the Buffalo Police Department, Buffalo Public Schools, the Erie County Health Department, elected officials, the faith-based community, service agencies, and city, county and family courts.

The approach is to treat the problem of youth violence as a public health issue, Deutschman said.

The group started small by adopting School 18 as a pilot project.

"We want measurable results. We want to demonstrate we made a difference," said Deutschman, interim director of Buffalo State's college and community partnerships program.

So far, the members have put together six weeks of gang-resistance education and training for fifth-graders.

A gang expert from the Police Department also was brought in to make presentations to adults in the task force. He showed participants how to recognize gang behavior in kids and showed the group different gang symbols, graffiti and clothes.

"Everybody knows a little about gangs," said Michele Graves, partnership associate who works with Deutschman. "But there are things they don't know. [For example], sometimes it's generational how kids are recruited. Grandfathers recruit from inside jail. You have second and third generations in these gangs. It's a way of life."

Also, task force members surveyed more than 60 faith-based organizations about existing youth-related activities at their organizations. The information will be compiled into a database for parents and students at School 18, the Dr. Antonia Pantoja Community School of Academic Excellence.

If the pilot project is successful, the group plans to apply the program to similarly distressed communities throughout the city.

"The whole idea is to see if we do make a difference, and then we will let people know what we did to start this and how to go from there," Berry said.

As for the community garden, Berry coordinated the project. A neighborhood cleanup took place last month. Now they're just waiting for City Hall action on the project, which is expected soon, so they can begin planting.

Once the garden has been planted, students will learn about the life cycle of plants -- from seed to bloom and beyond. They will record observations and keep science journals, said Maggie Henry, a third-grade teacher at the school who has been working with Berry to get the project started.

The soil at the proposed garden will be tested for free by Cornell University, Henry said.

If results come back normal, the group also will start a vegetable garden. Then fourth-grader Janice Orama, 9, will plant her favorites -- broccoli and lettuce.

Until then, she said, she will settle for her favorite flowers -- "daisies, roses and sunflowers."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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