The children who live in the Parkway Gardens housing complex at 64th and King Drive need help, and they need it soon.
Just one month ago, a promising daughter of that community, 16-year-old De’Kayla Dansberry, was fatally stabbed during a fight with another girl.
And in less than two weeks, Chicago Public Schools will let out for the summer, leaving the other 1,200 kids who reside within Parkway’s wrought-iron fences with few safe and constructive ways to spend their time.
That’s a recipe for more tragedy, which is why Chicago Police officer Jennifer Maddox invited me Thursday to Parkway’s basement community center.
Maddox wanted me to hear from a group of mothers about the lack of opportunities for their “babies” who are essentially held captive by the threat of violence.
“Our children are suffering,” said Mose Mae Ellison, a 66-year-old raising her grandson. “They can’t come outside and play.”
The women say many of the problems at Parkway Gardens are caused by “guests” of residents who come to the sprawling complex to party in the parking lot, creating an especially combustible mix on a hot summer evening.
Venturing beyond Parkway Gardens’ fences to visit a park or apply for a job is fraught with even more danger for both the young kids and teenagers who live there, their mere place of residence marking them as enemies of gangs in surrounding neighborhoods no matter their age.
Five years ago, Maddox stepped into this void to open a free summer day camp as an outgrowth of an after-school program she had started there while working as a security guard during her off hours.
From the start, there were always more children who wanted to participate in the programs than could be accommodated by Maddox, who funds them mostly out of her own pocket.
The community center is too small to handle all the children who wish to attend, which caused Maddox to limit her program to kindergartners through fifth-graders, much to the disappointment of the older kids who at first crowded into the room with the younger ones until it was standing room only.
“The older kids used to be down here every day. Just being here was good enough for them,” said Tenesha Payne.
The safe and loving environment compensated for the lack of space, but ultimately the numbers proved unmanageable.
De’Kayla was one of the kids who participated in the program, often helping the younger ones with homework or leading activities, before she got too old.
I asked the mothers if they thought De’Kayla and the girls with whom she fought would have been at the community center instead of on the streets if that had been an option the day she was killed.
“Yes,” they responded in unison, as if I were foolish to ask.
When I first introduced readers to Maddox two years ago, she was operating the summer camp out of a small, nearby church. Last year, she moved it to a school next door to Parkway and nearly doubled her enrollment to 150, but there was still a waiting list.
This summer, she had hoped to expand again but instead was informed the school would be unavailable.
At this point, she’s stuck at the community center with only enough room to serve 40 kids.
I’m not trying to fund-raise, although Maddox’s group, Future Ties, is a worthy cause. I’m looking for somebody in officialdom or an organization with deep pockets to open some doors and arrange to get her some space.
There’s a tangible opportunity here to save lives.
Late Friday afternoon, in response to my inquiries, CPS officials said they are “working to explore additional options that could allow this worthy program to continue over the summer months.”
That’s a good start.