The sirens have been heard before by these children, who on Saturday waited from their Gardere driveways and apartment balconies in pajamas or school uniforms worn the day before.
In the neighborhood’s streets, though, it wasn’t a crime scene this time around. Rather, it was police officers leading a band of volunteers who carried buckets of candy and called “Morning!” to their neighbors.
The small parade marked the beginning of the second year of the Youth Peace Olympics, sponsored by the Louisiana Center for Health Equity. Taking a page from the real Olympics, the parade was the opening ceremony for monthly daylong camps that will take place through August for about 50 Gardere children.
The camps teach youth aged 10 to 16 — who are referred to Youth Peace Olympics organizers by their schools, families and community organizations — about resolving conflicts, communication, career planning and entrepreneurship as well as sports and creative arts. The ultimate goal is to curb youth violence.
“The idea is allow them opportunities to participate in team activities, in activities where they can learn how to conduct themselves in a team spirit … in an appropriate way,” said Alma Stewart, director of the Center for Health Equality. “It’s an opportunity for us to observe and coach them.”
After the parade Saturday, children boarded a bus to Perkins Road Community Park, where they got a taste of the activities they’ll be doing this summer.
Not only do the camps teach the children valuable life skills, Stewart said, they also provide productive ways to spend their time. She sees it as a way to stop youth violence before it’s too late.
“One child dying is too many, especially when that child is dying at the hands of another child,” she said. “In most cases, homicides are committed by perpetrators that look like the victim — the same age and demographic and knows the person. … I think whenever a child dies, it’s a travesty when it’s a preventable death.”
Stewart pointed to a 2014 shooting at a birthday party at the Baker Civic Club, where three teenagers were killed. Incidents like that hurt the entire community, she said.
While crime remains a concern in the Gardere neighborhood, it has steadily dropped in recent years. But the legacy of violence in the neighborhood has left behind another problem. There are few safe outlets for creativity or physical activity.
“There’s not really a lot of positive things for kids to do,” said Stewart’s 16-year-old granddaughter, Jordan Stewart, who grew up in Gardere.
Many parents in the area either can’t or won’t do things with their children, said Stefanie Mathes, who brought three of her sons to the parade Saturday.
“A lot of young males don’t have role models,” she said. “…They get lost in the wind. With the Youth Olympics, they have mentors. They have men there that are willing to talk to these kids, to help these young men especially, give them some kind of guidance.”
Mathes has two older sons, who “didn’t have anything like this” when they were growing up in Gardere.
Years ago, Gardere was a “wrote-off area,” she said, but now things are changing with help from efforts like the Youth Peace Olympics and the Gardere Initiative, which works to eliminate substance abuse in the neighborhood.
Her 11-year-old son, Quentin Jordan, participated in the Olympics last year and returned Saturday as the torchbearer at the front of the parade. He is eager to go back to camp this summer, where he learned last year how to play tennis. Now he calls it a hobby.
The other activities “teach you to be brave … to stand up for yourself,” Jordan said.
J’Tyriah Woodson, 15, was excited about getting to play tennis, too. But more importantly, she said the Olympics brought out courage in her when she came last year. She learned how to speak in front of a group of people.
Woodson thinks those lessons, which build young people’s minds, can make her community better.
“If we live in a world with a lot of violence, we wouldn’t get nowhere; we wouldn’t accomplish things,” she said. “The world wouldn’t be a place that people want to live.”
“It’s bringing the community together. It’s helping. It’s not hurting us.”