Holyoke lands $555K-plus grant to address youth, gang violence

  • Holyoke City Hall as seen from Lyman Street on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/7/2022 2:21:59 PM

HOLYOKE — Holyoke and Chicopee have landed a large state grant to help pay for programs — from career exploration to youth development and recreation — designed to address gang and youth violence in their communities.

The Shannon Community Initiative Grant program, funded by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security’s Office of Grants and Research, last month allocated $566,355, which will go to MassHire Holyoke, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke and other organizations in Holyoke and Chicopee that offer services and initiatives for youth and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24.

MassHire Holyoke, for example, intends to use a portion of the money to pay for an Early Career Exploration pilot program for seventh- and eighth-grade students, said Yaritza Cruz-Baez, director of youth services at MassHire Holyoke.

Cruz-Baez said the program gives youth that are more inclined to get into risky behavior a chance to participate in an after-school activity that also compensates them in the end. Over the course of four months, middle schoolers in the program learn how to build a resume, make in-person visits to businesses and meet guest speakers from different careers.

“The grant that allowed me to even make this a possibility was the Shannon grant,” Cruz-Baez said, a Holyoke native who has a “passion for working with the youth of Holyoke.”

The Holyoke Boys and Girls Club, the largest youth servicing agency in Holyoke, is using some of its grant money to pay for a 15-hour-a-week licensed social worker to help with the social and emotional engagement for the youth and their families, said Eileen Cavanaugh, the club’s president and CEO who oversees the Shannon grant for Holyoke and Chicopee.

The grant program this year awarded $11.2 million to 15 cities and 14 research partners. Holyoke and Chicopee are among those cities identified because gangs and youth violence have been an issue for years. In 2020, the Holyoke/Chicopee Shannon Community Safety Initiative identified 11 formal named gangs comprising more than 300 members. Gangs include the Appleton Posse, Bloods, Crips, Dirty South, Flatbush, La Familia, Latin Kings, NETAS, NHB (NeighborHood Bloods) Rollin 20s, O3, R2D (Ready to Die), as well as other unnamed gangs. Recruitment of youth into gangs occurs in schools, through peer relationships, and via social media, according to the Shannon grant program.

The Shannon grants, which began in 2008, are typically divided into five strategy areas: social intervention, suppression, opportunity provisions, organizational change and community mobilization.

The goal is to catch youth violence early because once they are involved “it gets a little bit more challenging, in terms of re-engaging them,” Cruz-Baez said.

“Risky behavior is what’s resulting in youth violence in our community,” Cavanaugh said. The intent is to provide pro-social engagement and get young people to re-engage.

These efforts also take place at the Chicopee Boys and Girls Club, the largest youth servicing agency in Chicopee. Another partner of the Shannon program in Chicopee is the Chicopee Police Department.

For the future, Cruz-Baez hopes the program gives funding to continue to offer more preventative measures.

“I’m thinking of focusing more on how we prevent this early on, if we’re able to detect it early then we’re not in the trajectory towards the end where it becomes more challenging,” she said.

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