As law enforcement
records a rise in crime during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kent County Board of Commissioners allocated $500,000 of its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding towards a grant aiming to decrease the rates of violence in our communities. Through the Community Violence Prevention Grant Program, Kent County will assist nonprofits via the prevention of violent behaviors and the rehabilitation of individuals with established violent behavior.
Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young says the crimes of youth, in particular, have risen to an alarming amount with 23 arrests and warrants authorized this summer. According to LaJoye-Young, this escalation corresponds not only with the ramifications of the pandemic, but also the restricted social and developmental resources available throughout the county.
“It’s a long standing statistical correlation that one of the best strategies to reduce youth violence is to get them occupied and receive constructive self-esteem-, relationship-, and community building strategies,” LaJoye-Young says. “After-school programs, such as athletics and the Boys and Girls Club, have been used for decades to help build self-esteem with a young person, receive what they need to get through the hard times we all experience, and make strong connections with others in their communities.”
Ever since the pandemic, though, it has been extremely difficult for these youth to receive the guidance and support they need. “All of those resources for young people to further their education and occupy their time constructively with encouraging personal contacts have been reduced because of our community’s response to COVID-19,” LaJoye-Young says.
As of early September, LaJoye-Young reported that eight juveniles were responsible for over 70 burglaries throughout Kent County. While some may have started as petty crimes, others soon developed into motor vehicle and cell phone thefts, reckless driving that resulted in injury and property damage, and gun violence, of which police have already investigated 21 homicides this year. “All of that escalation soon stemmed into a series of community-based shootings of which we’re still seeing the effects these unprecedented shooting-related deaths have on the community of West Michigan,” LaJoye-Young says.
Due to this direct correlation between the pandemic and our youth, LaJoye-Young knew that the best avenues of approach were programs that supported the outreach and mentoring of our youth, as well as anti-violent strategies for all ages of the community. Once Kent County received nearly $115 million in federal funding in May, LaJoye-Young and Kent County Board of Commissioners saw this opportunity as a way to provide some meaningful short-term relief to community-based organizations with the hopes of making a difference in young people’s lives.
Those awarded for these grants ranging from $15,000 to $150,000 include Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Boys and Girls Club of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth, Edge Urban Fellowship, Grand Rapids Urban League, New City Kids, Muse Ed, and YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. “Keeping our residents and communities safe is a top priority for the Kent County Board of Commissioners,” says Chair Mandy Bolter. “We are proud to make these resources available to community organizations who are working tirelessly to develop innovative solutions that make our neighborhoods safer.”
According to LaJoye-Young, these seven nonprofits were chosen because each laid out specific checkpoints and milestones to measure the progress and effectiveness of their work in the community. “We talk about wanting change, but we often don’t talk about what that change looks like and how to know when we’ve made strides towards change,” LaJoye-Young says. “I hope these projects give a kick-start for that because a less violent community is one that invests in all the residents in their community, especially their youth, and applies the resources and strategies necessary to achieve those outcomes that will move us forward as a community.”
While LaJoye-Young and Kent County’s Sergeant Joy Matthews have definitely seen crime rates increase in Kent County with their own eyes, they also understand that this is often an issue in which, unless one has been directly affected, most individuals will believe it is a problem for someone else to deal with – but this should not be the case. “This is an entire community issue,” Matthews says. “It’s a reality our entire nation is facing. Everyone needs to do their part to stop it. Whether you are directly affected or not, it truly does take a village – and that village is the whole county of Kent.”
For LaJoye-Young, this issue is not about politics, but about humanity. “These are people’s lives. Not only will they have ramifications for the rest of their lives if they make a bad decision early in life, but they’re also impacting the people who they’re victimizing,” LaJoye-Young says. “While that should be the main reason to help end these crimes, financially, it is also way more expensive to respond to crimes than to prevent crime. If we don't put the right revenues on the front end, I can guarantee you’ll have them on the back end.”
Because each of the grant’s recipients are nonprofits, LaJoye-Young hopes this grant will shine a spotlight on the various ways organizations can impact people’s lives every day and also encourage members of the community to support these missions both financially and through simple acts of kindness. “Find one of these programs that touches your heart and one you would want to see more of throughout the community and support them, even if it’s just emotionally because I can't tell you how nice it is to get a supportive card,” LaJoye-Young says. “When someone did this for me, it made all the difference and inspired me to get up the next day and do it all over again.”
Image courtesy Kent County Sheriff's Office.