Every first and third Saturday from now through Sept. 30, approximately 20 youngsters ages 13-17 are mowing grass and maintaining 40 vacant lots targeted as depressed neighborhoods by the LCRA. The young adults are part of the Business Research Institute's summer youth program.
"We were looking at a way to help the kids in the target area and how to get people to take more pride in it so we decided the best thing we could do -- if at all possible -- is to put the kids to work," said LCRA Board Chairman Mike Bohannon.
And it's also a way for the youth to develop responsibility and work ethics, Bohannon pointed out.
The idea for the area's youth to help maintain the target area, which is mostly in Ward 4, originated from Bohannon and Business Research Institute President Matt Marshall. "So when the LCRA solicited bids for lawn care, one of the criteria we asked for was a not-for-profit youth program," Bohannon recalled. "BRI put together a proposal and we accepted it."
A typical Saturday session begins around 8 a.m. and lasts about four or five hours. "We give an orientation on work safety to the kids and they're issued gloves and safety glasses," Marshall said.
Each youngster is responsible for two lots and is partnered with another person. Together they maintain four lots, Marshall explained, adding that one push mows and the other rakes the grass.
"We've got a great bunch of young men and women, and we're very pleased with the job they're doing," Bohannon commented.
Fourteen-year-old Marquon Davis is one of the young adults in the BRI youth program. He finished his second work session Saturday and said so far his job mowing and raking grass is "all right."
"It keeps me out of the streets," Davis said.
And Davis said he's noticed the well-trimmed neighborhood. "When I would go walking, all I used to see was tall grass and I couldn't see around it. I'm glad we're cutting the grass," said the teenager. "Now Sikeston is getting cleaner."
Davis admitted he hasn't heard much feedback from the community about the cleaner lots. "A lot of people think we're doing community service," he smiled.
And in a way they are.
Marshall laughed: "But this community service is strictly volunteer."
Providing the youth with the opportunity to work was also an effort for the LCRA to tackle the community's grievance about the city not maintaining the vacant lots, Marshall pointed out.
"The city is networking with entities, organizations, individuals and community leaders to help some of the problems of the depressed neighborhoods," Marshall said. "I think the more networking the city does with community, the better we'll see the development of the problem neighborhoods."
Since it began work earlier this month, BRI's youth program has overcome a few obstacles, Marshall noted. Things like sink holes in the lots, trash, overgrown trees and vegetation have all hindered the mowing and maintenance a bit, he said.
However, the city is working with the group and has hauled in dirt to fill in holes and bush-hogged tall grass, both Marshall and Bohannon said.
Bohannon admitted he's satisfied with the youths' work. "I think that for a lot of these kids it's their first job and they have the responsibility to get that lot mowed and take care of and keep it raked and the trash picked up," Bohannon noted.
And if someone doesn't do what they're told or doesn't perform up to expectations, just like in the real world, they will be terminated, Bohannon said, adding that there have been some terminations already.
"There are too many kids that want to help to keep someone on who isn't doing their job," Bohannon pointed out.
Marshall said there's even a waiting list of about 10 who would like to volunteer.
"They're making Sikeston look better, and Matt is teaching them responsibility, and I think that just leads to better citizens," Bohannon said.
The LCRA board hopes to expand the program in the future, and Bohannon said the program will continue as long as there are individuals who want to work and help.
Bohannon said: "I think it's given the kids an opportunity to work, to earn some extra money and to take pride in a job well done because we expect these lots to look just like the mowed lawn next door."