A new after-school program for Peoria Public Schools students aims to make neighborhoods safer and prevent youth violence.
“Lights On, Peoria” offers teenagers from Manual Academy and Peoria High School a safe place to hang out on the weekends.
Demario Boone, chief of security for the district, oversees the program. He said it's as simple as offering kids a hot meal and recreational activities with mentors from their community.
“A lot of kids are going home hungry and not eating on the weekends or hanging out at the mall for WiFi or just sitting around,” he said. “This is just giving them something to do."
Boone said the hope is to provide laundry machines, haircuts, toiletries and other services. They’re also aiming to teach students “soft skills.”
"I want them to learn skills that we grew up with,” Boone said. “You learned how to cook, because you had to cook. You learned how to change a tire on a car, or how to apply for a job, or what is a resume, or how to vote. Those are things a lot of kids should get at home, but they may not get it."
Students can spend time playing basketball, holding gaming competitions, working in an audio production studio or taking salsa lessons, among other activities.
The “Lights On” program was originally started in Newark, New Jersey, in an attempt to combat youth crime and low school attendance rates.
Boone said he was inspired to bring the program to Peoria because students here face similar challenges.
“Even just hearing some of the things and affirmations they're not getting at home [or] seeing students with dirty uniforms, or students that have hygiene issues that are just embarrassed and shy to ask for a stick of deodorant — we just wanted to address those root cause issues so that they can come to school and be whole,” he said.
Boone said connecting students with adults in the community also helps build trust.
“If that student on a Friday or Saturday night is coming in here and their teachers are playing basketball with them — or their teacher is swimming with them [or] playing Xbox with them — when they come in on Monday morning, it's a different family vibe,” he said.
“Lights On, Peoria” kicks off Friday, Feb. 8 from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at Manual Academy. The program will run out of Peoria High School on alternating weekends starting Feb. 22. In order to participate, students must attend the host high school, provide photo identification and be signed up by a parent.
The program is being funded by a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, Boone said they still need monetary donations for food, which is not included in the grant. They’re also looking for volunteers to supervise the program and teach students different skills.