The City of Fort Pierce, the county seat for St. Lucie County, Florida, has experienced a disturbing increase in gang-related violence in recent years. Based on crime statistics, Fort Pierce was ranked as the 22nd most dangerous city nationwide in 2014. Using an anti-gang model pioneered by the U.S. Department of Juvenile Justice in cities across the country, community leaders came together to form the Roundtable of St. Lucie County, a dedicated group of partners who work together to improve outcomes for youth throughout St. Lucie County. Staff from St. Lucie County Human Services Division, the community action agency for St. Lucie County, met with other community service leaders to discuss gaps in services, the lack of access to affordable transportation, and the existing youth services (Palm Beach Post).
Interviews with over 200 teenagers echoed research findings that suggest “supporting access to opportunities by overcoming barriers such as transportation can contribute to reducing crime, drug use, gang involvement and violence” (City of St. Lucie). For example, some students stated that they couldn’t afford the $100 fee charged per semester by the school district for school bus transport to and from after-school activities. In an effort to remove the biggest barrier to positive community programs, the St. Lucie County Board of County Commissioners partnered with the area’s community transit system operator to offer free bus rides to students under the age of 18 with a valid St school ID or Library Card during the summer months.
Since this pilot ride program was designed as a strategy to improve economic situations of youth in the community by increasing access to employment, education, structured activities and recreational opportunities with a subsequent reduction in crime and gang activity, the County worked with the schools and local media to spread the word about the program. Partners created a bus route map overlay to show the nearest stops to summer youth activities, including summer camps, pools, library reading programs and other youth events. Community partners worked together to promote the Youth Ride Free program while simultaneously increasing community awareness of activities available to youth. The pilot program “resulted in 3,032 free rides during the summer break, giving students access to library events, summer camps, and other recreational activities” (Palm Beach Post; City of St. Lucie).
Data from the various youth programs showcase the success of this collaborative community wide effort to connect teens to programs. The St. Lucie County Library System experienced a significant increase in its attendance and participation of its summer reading programs with more than 4,500 children attending events. The Library’s summer reading challenge program attracted 2,188 children who picked up reading logs – a 137% increase over 2014! Six-hundred and eighty-four students completed the challenge, a 256% increase compared to the previous year. The Teen Reading Challenge saw a 264% increase in the number of students obtaining reading logs, with 518 picking up the forms and 101 completing the challenge for a 57% increase over last summer. Additionally, St. Lucie County’s three pools experienced an increase in attendance. While the Parks Department was unable to provide specifics on general pool admissions, staff did report a 16.8% increase in paid enrollments for swimming lessons in 2015 over the previous year. This and other increased activity in safety programs helped St. Lucie County be ranked 27th in the Top 50 Red Cross providers throughout South Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The positive feedback from the public, as well as the local media, convinced county officials that the pilot program should be extended. Through the budget process, County Commissioners set aside $20,000 from the general revenue to extend the youth ride free program through the 2015-16 school year.
This spotlight story was written by Rae Tamblyn, using the data and narrative from American City County Crown Community magazine, an article featured in Palm Beach Post, the official City website, and data provided by the St. Lucie County Human Services Division staff.
More information and news coverage on this awesome community level initiative can be found at: