CYC-Online 118 DECEMBER 2008
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Creating resiliency in urban neighborhoods

Steven R. Timmermans, Susan S. Hasseler and Rhae-Ann Y. Booker

A project funded by the Kellogg Foundation used faith-based organizations to identify strengths in high-risk children and youth. Programs spanning Grades 4 to 12 matched youth with prosocial peers and adults and provided opportunities for expanding their personal goals and educational horizons. A variety of activities in mentoring built relationships, strengthened academic skills, and raised career and college aspirations. Seventyfive percent of youth completing this program are going on to postsecondary education.

Recently, the Associated Press issued a story titled A Hero Lost (1999). At 14, Lafayette Clark, a fatherless boy in an inner city neighborhood, had foiled a kidnapping and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey television show as a hero. Three years later, Lafayette was a high school dropout, an absentee father, and a statistic. While robbing a drug house, his accomplice mistakenly shot and killed him. If a hero can’t survive, who can?

That was the question facing a number of Grand Rapids, Michigan, community leaders in the summer of 1996. Within blocks of three city churches, young African American teens were being killed on a particular street corner at an alarming rate. Two college professors and a dozen urban ministers met together to form a leadership group to chart a course of survival for the city’s youth. They looked first at what it means to be at-risk, and then they began to identify the qualities of youth that survive and even thrive, trying to understand how such qualities become their defining characteristics. Before describing the collaborative program that resulted from this group’s efforts, we want to review the literature in order to provide a necessary foundation for understanding risk and resilience.

Risk and resiliency
Burt, Resnick, and Novick (1998) defined risk as “the probability that future problems will arise given the youth’s current balance between competencies and vulnerabilities" – (p. 29). They went on to explain four common problem-focused perspectives on risk and contrasted them with a strengths-based approach.

The contrasting strengths-based perspective “emphasizes the individual’s competencies and strengths, with the underlying belief that building skills and competencies is the key to the prevention of dysfunctional behavior" (Burt et al., 1998, p. 33). The authors suggested that “all elements in society should be centered on supporting normal child development" – and their list of societal supporting institutions included schools, religious congregations, businesses, and government. Interventions based on this perspective tend to focus on many more individuals than just the ones likely to become involved in risky behaviors.

We began to consider a strengths perspective after having begun primarily from a problem-focused perspective. A strengths perspective complements the inclusive nature of urban church goals – a desire to serve all youth and not just a subset of them. Furthermore, the broad focus of a strengths perspective leads to a holistic posture necessary for reclaiming the city rather than responding only to specific needs in an unrelated way.

With this added focus, we began to better understand resiliency, particularly as informed by two sets of studies. The emerging findings of the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health (Resnick et al., 1997) suggested that youth are less likely to engage in risky behavior if they feel close to their parents, if their physical appearance fits their age, if they work at jobs less than 20 hours a week, and if they find religion and prayer important. Second, studies in health education have demonstrated the effectiveness of African American churches in helping their youth avoid behaviors that would put their health at risk (e.g., Sutherland, Hale, Harris, Stalls and Foulk, 1997).

With this background, our road map to resiliency began to emerge. Bogenschneider (1996) suggested that instead of seeing these two approaches – risks versus strengths – as conflicting, we must integrate the two theoretical stances. As such, the theory or approach that would sustain our work was both problem focused and strengths focused. We began by identifying the environments or neighborhoods that have the highest rates of crime, drug use, and unemployment. Numerous studies have indicated that children and youth living in urban, impoverished neighborhoods are at risk for developing problem behaviors that will jeopardize their future and the future of others (see, e.g., Black and Krishnakumar, 1998; Wandersman and Nation, 1998). We chose three neighborhoods in Grand Rapids and one in Muskegon, Michigan – both moderate to smaller midwestern cities with significant urban ills that seem to surface in most cities with a decaying urban core.

We also began looking at strengths, both in terms of the environment and with respect to the person, in shaping our response. For instance, our immediate conclusion was that our doorway into the local neighborhoods would be the neighborhood church, most often either ethnic (African American) or multiethnic (White but with growing African American engagement and membership). These churches became immediately involved because they are strong social institutions that serve as magnets to elicit and strengthen the emerging positive motives, goals, and behavior of neighborhood children and youth.

Similarly, we looked at the strengths of the children and youth with whom the churches were working. We began to realize we could capitalize on the strength reflected by these young people’s involvement in the neighborhood church, because of either personal choice or parental mandate. For example, a social worker had described a family with whom he was working as he analyzed one of the church’s neighborhoods. This family, impoverished and stressed, had had little success with their first three children; in fact, one was already institutionalized. The fourth child, however, was choosing – with no encouragement from his family – to attend youth programs two nights every week at two different neighborhood churches. This child was breaking the family pattern of failure. We knew we could replicate this form of nurturing, helping this young man and many others to become survivors.

We decided to focus on all youth in the neighborhoods where the churches were based. All 12 churches that became involved were located in “risky" urban neighborhoods that served young people off the street, but they also included the sons and daughters of adult members, both African American and White, who lived in more stable environments.

We set out to serve all young people – not just those in classrooms for the emotionally impaired or those under the watchful eye of the criminal justice system, but our commitment to urban churches as one of the few enduring and strong social institutions in the inner city required that we not make our project too big and unmanageable by taking on another social institution – city schools – and the mammoth task of school reform. Thus, we reviewed the resiliency literature to find a platform that would be educational in nature but not “school reformist" in substance. We looked in particular at the literature associated with college entry and success.

Levine and Nidiffer (1996) suggested that the doorway of opportunity for the poor is found in the local neighborhoods, that remaining in school all the way to college involves significant others who provide a mentoring function, and that success requires exposure to a broader set of opportunities and experiences than typically found in at-risk environments. Jarrett (1995) stated that there are five strategies for boosting resiliency:

1. Engage supportive adults,
2. Limit interaction with the negative influences in the community,
3. Have parents monitor their children,
4. Arrange for involvement with social institutions that promote growth, such as schools and churches, and
5. Help youth develop the necessary skills and competencies to withstand the negative influences of their environments.

Finally, a recent national study by Horn, Chen, and Adelman (1998) discovered four factors that seem to protect at-risk youth and help them enter college. Two of these factors relate to parents and peers, the third is participation in college-preparation activities (e.g., obtaining help for entrance exams, gathering information about financial aid), and the fourth is participation in college outreach programs.

We decided to make our focus precollege programs. Although the Upward Bound model has been successful throughout the last few decades, our model would be substantially different because of its connection with the churches. Because we realized that patterns are too difficult to change if efforts wait until high school entry, we decided to have our program start at fourth grade. In other words, we set out to create and strengthen the protective pathway that begins with youngsters in the local neighborhood, weaves its way throughout the educational system, and arrives at the doorstep of postsecondary education or training.

Pathways to Possibilities
Our program, administered by Calvin College, is called Pathways to Possibilities, and it received initial 3-year funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The program started in January 1997 and is composed of five components.

Component 1: Local church efforts
The broadest category of programming contained our local church enhancement efforts. Our network of churches included three African American Baptist churches, seven Reformed Presbyterian churches, and two Pentecostal African American churches – some with emerging programs and others with a solid array already in place. With grant funding and project direction, our 12 churches had been able to improve and expand their efforts directed toward youth. Three areas of enhancement are of particular interest. First, 9 of the 12 churches had developed or improved upon existing tutoring programs. One church set up a learning center in their building and filled it with “retired" computers from Calvin College. Another church arranged a partnership with their local school. Each week, 21 church tutors came to the school to help fourth through sixth graders for at least 1 hour. Still another offered a homework house to neighborhood youth two evenings a week. Second, these churches and their youth leaders realized that the church could supplement the often understaffed school guidance office by sharing the role of college counselors, helping parents remember financial aid deadlines, and assisting youth as they explored college choices. Third, the churches found that as they combined their resources and efforts, their impact was strengthened. Although churches often fail to work together, these churches – in neighborhood clusters of three – hosted career fairs for city youth and offered educational opportunities during school vacations.

Component 2: Campus visits
Our second effort was our campus visit program. Many youth could not identify a person in their family who had attended college. For some, the only relevance the world of colleges and universities held was watching their basketball teams on TV. Eight times a month, developmentally appropriate campus visits were conducted – most often at Calvin College, but also at other colleges and universities. The students learned about different areas of college study and dorm life, explored careers, and completed scavenger hunts on the World Wide Web with the help of professors and college students.

Components 3, 4, and 5: Summer programs
The other three programs occurred in the summer months. One program, Summer Journeys, was a 5-week summer skills program organized thematically and aimed at literacy and computing technology skills for students having completed Grades 5 through 8. Another program, Possibilities Conference, was a precollege conference for students having completed Grades 7 through 10. During this conference, students moved on-campus and participated in a simulated college weekend, complete with classes, concerts, dorm food, and sports events. The final program, Entrada, was an intensive, 4-week college preparatory program for students having completed Grades 11 and 12. In this program, students enrolled in an actual college course with other college students. Each afternoon, a mentor who attended the class with them taught them how to learn the material they encountered in the 3-hour class period each morning. (See Timmermans and Heerspink, 1996, for further description of this program.)

All five components provided a year-round range of nurturing activities for youth in Grades 4 through 12. For each component, the churches provided the “doorways" and the relationships; the actual programs offered exposure to and experience with career and college preparation and investigation while strengthening academic skills.

Of course, from a problem-focused perspective, our approach could be criticized. First, it could be considered inefficient because it also served African American and White youth from affluent families, safe neighborhoods, and good schools. One might conclude that there thus were fewer resources available for those truly at risk. And second, the program could be accused of serving only the “cream of the crop", because those youth already engaged in problem behaviors usually had stopped associating with a church long ago and might have already entered the criminal justice system.

Although we paid attention to both criticisms, we continue to be guided by a strengths perspective. A certain amount of inefficiency is going to accompany any work with youth because the concept of at-risk is a complicated, multivariable idea. We also recognize that social learning theory is operative in development; vicarious reinforcement does occur. We try not to segregate at-risk youth from other youth, because such actions distance the latter from those peers whom they should model and with whom they should interact. We do not avoid those adolescents who have chosen to engage in problem behaviors; rather, we try to prevent them from future involvement in problem behaviors by offering services that promote strengths already at the fourth-grade level.

Is it working?
Because Pathways to Possibilities has been in effect for only 2 years, we cannot yet measure the impact it is having on the elementary and middle school students who have participated. We are working hard to turn one trend around with the more than 500 youth with whom we interact: a lack of consistency in attending any or all of the five programs. If we are to make survivors out of these urban youth, consistency is necessary; therefore, we are asking our church youth leaders to encourage continuity, and we are building incentives for consistent involvement into our programs.

Collaborative efforts include challenges. In one session for all of our church coordinators, we found that church decision-making processes vary. For some churches, all decisions must involve the pastor. In others, the key is getting the issues to the right committee or group of people. Ignorance of these implicit processes was paralyzing our efforts, but as our church coordinators began to better understand how decisions were made in their individual churches, they began to learn how to work within these various systems more effectively.

We have had three community evaluation sessions where we invited community leaders, school personnel, agency representatives, and parents to critique our efforts. We asked them to point out obstacles of which we might be unaware, to identify areas where we should avoid duplication and promote linkage, and to challenge us to improve. For example, one school principal noted that although the church a block away from her school was serving some of her students, many more youth from her school needed the services of the church and of the project. As a result, 8 months later the tutoring program now serves her school, and the principal invites the church to advertise its youth services at the school’s meetings.

Our current research is focusing on the young people who have now progressed past the 12th grade as we attempt to identify the factors that contribute to resiliency in this group of students. Our initial test of a student questionnaire points, as expected, to the positive effect of high parental expectations. And, in circular fashion, we are incorporating more parental involvement into all aspects of our programming.

In measuring outcomes, when we excluded White students and looked only at ethnic and/or minority students – those at-risk and those not – who began in the program as high schoolers, two encouraging initial signs became evident. First, those youth who participated in the Entrada program had enrolled in college at a rate of 79%. Second, when we looked at all of the youth we had served who are now of a post-high school age – regardless of the specific program(s) in which they were involved and the consistency of their involvement – 77% entered some form of postsecondary education.

Longer-term studies will be needed to determine if the fourth and fifth graders who have begun with the program’s genesis achieve a 75% or better college enrollment rate, to ascertain the ultimate college graduation rates for all, and to assess whether the Entrada college preparatory program is a significant factor in achieving success in college.

Are we identifying any heros? Not yet, but we are convinced we’re reclaiming many who would otherwise have not survived.


A Hero Lost. (1999, February 7). The Grand Rapids Press, p. A6.

Black, M. and Krishnakumar, A. (1998). Children in low-income, urban settings: Interventions to promote mental health and well-being. American Psychologist, 53. pp. 635-646.

Bogenschneider, K. (1996). An ecological risk/protective theory for building prevention programs, policies, and community capacity to support youth. Family Relations, 45. pp.127-138.

Burt, M., Resnick, G. and Novick, E. (1998). Building supportive communities far at-risk adolescents: It takes more than services. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Horn, L., Chen, X. and Adelman, C. (1998). Toward resiliency: At-risk students who make it into college. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Jarrett, R. (1995). Growing up poor: The family experiences of socially mobile youth in low-income African-American neighborhoods. Journal of Adolescent Research, 10. pp.111-135.

Levine, A.and Nidiffer, J. (1996). Beating the odds: How the poor get to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Resnick, M., Bearman, P., Blum, R., Bauman, K., Harris, K., Jones, J., Tabor, J., Beuhring, T., Sieving, R., Shew, M., Ireland, M., Bearinger, L. and Udry J. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278. pp. 823- 832.

Sutherland, M., Hale, C., Harris, G., Stalls, P. and Foulk, D. (1997). Strengthening rural youth resiliency through the church. Journal of Health Education, 28. pp. 205-214.

Timmermans, S. and Heerspink, J. (1996). Intensive developmental instruction in a pre-college summer program. The Learning Assistance Review, 1, 2. pp. 32-44.

Wandersman, A. and Nation, M. (1998). Urban neighborhoods and mental health: Psychological contributions to understanding toxicity, resilience, and interventions. American Psychologist, 53. pp. 647-656.

This feature: Timmermans, S.R.; Hasseler, S.S. and Booker, R. Y. (1999). Creating resiliency in urban neighborhoods. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 8, 2. pp. 107-111.

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