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King Center staff will listen, help

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Gary Krambeck

Gabrielle Arrington plays the game `Contect Four,' as Kiante Lagrone and Andrew Arrington swing each other at the Martin Luther King Center. Services at the center are free, but center direcotor Carolyn Ross asks that parents who use the center, volunteer time.

ROCK ISLAND -- Seven kids, legs dangling in mid-air, sat in chairs waiting to play a Nintendo baseball game.

A few others watched intently as a little boy plinked a red chip into a Connect Four gameboard.

Four adults bustled around the room making sure all the children had games to play and good things to say to each other.

It was a typical day at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, Rock Island's city-owned, family-oriented resource center.

Programs at the 23-year-old building range from substance-abuse prevention and a workforce center to after-school social development and educational activities. Community groups also can reserve community rooms for meetings and special events.

Although one of the center's most active programs is its senior citizens club, much of the focus is on children, director Carolyn Ross said. Fashions, slang and music have changed since the center's 1975 opening, but many of children's problems have stayed the same.

``Some of the basic things like peer pressure, relationships, the pressure to drink or do drugs -- those don't change,'' Ms. Ross said. ``Kids will always say, `I'm not cute enough,' `I'm not good enough,' or `I can't read well enough.' The bottom line is trying to teach them how to make good decisions.''

Families who know they need help with these decisions are willing to come to the center for advice, Ms. Ross said. However, when parents can't admit their kids are struggling in school, using drugs or needing extra attention, they're hesitant to get help.

``Those in need are the easiest to get here,'' Ms. Ross said. ``For those who think we should be able to handle our own problems, we don't always ask for help before a crisis.''

Families should be involved in the solution to their problems and the rewards for solving them, Ms. Ross said. Although community center services are free, she asks that parents volunteer in exchange for help.

When a child gets a good grade, makes a new friend or gets off drugs, Ms. Ross asks the family to celebrate. From congratulatory certificates to free Quad City Thunder tickets, rewards encourage families to keep working together, she said.

The King Center helps children develop good social skills by working with volunteers and employees who are positive role models, Ms. Ross said. More than 2,000 children attend after-school programs every year.

Kendra Jones, a Black Hawk College student who has worked at the center 1 1/2 years, said she has formed a close relationship with children who regularly attend the after-school program.

``I see them in the grocery store, and they're hugging me and yelling, `Kendra! Kendra!''' Ms. Jones said. ``Their parents don't know what to think of it sometimes.''

Extra love and attention is exactly what children need, said Carlos Jimenez, who coordinates the King Center's substance abuse prevention program with Edison Junior High School.

Mr. Jimenez teaches small classes of at-risk youths at Edison, focusing on social skills and character education. Students discuss problems with him every day, he said.

``They get pretty personal with me,'' Mr. Jimenez said. ``It takes a while because they come from an environment where there are too many broken promises. They can rely on no one but themselves.''

At the King Center, workers encourage the kids to express their feelings, get along with all kinds of people and try new activities. Children who rely on the latest gadgets and gizmos for entertainment need to try activities such as finger painting, poetry and plays, Ms. Ross said.

``Our kids are so used to being entertained by video games, music and computers,'' Ms. Ross said. ``They've lost their ability to be creative. We weren't brought up with all that, and I think we're more well-rounded for it.''

However, workers at the King Center are more than activity leaders and teachers. Most importantly, they are listeners.

``Kids have bad days and good days,'' Ms. Ross said. ``It's important for us to be there on the bad days to help them get through those. But it's even more important to be there on the good days to help reinforce what's going right.''

For adults and children, finding a good job is ``something going right,'' Ms. Ross said. The King Center's work force center provides employment information and job training.

Many young adults looking for jobs need to match their skills with job goals and develop a positive attitude, Ms. Ross said.

``I remember being a kid,'' she said. ``It seemed like every other adult asked, `What do you want to be?' We don't do that anymore. We need to.''

-- By Laura Oppenheimer (January 22, 1998)

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