An Early Intervention Project Amid Drugs And Violence, The Program Offers Refuge.

Posted: June 11, 1993

GLASSBORO — As the sun faded behind a row of weather-beaten roofs in the Ellis Manor housing project, Mary Allen lovingly held her daughter Lacreshia, wiping dinner from the 2-year-old's tiny face.

Allen spoke wearily, mirroring the frustrations and fears many Ellis Manor residents have faced since the 60-unit development became a lightning rod for

drug activity and violence in recent years.

But in the face of trials, Allen and other residents have been optimistic about the future. The symbol of their hope, however, is not a police badge or a nightstick, but a bright little room in the middle of the Manor, adorned with toys, multicolored rugs and murals of Sesame Street characters.

"It's something we've needed for a while," Allen said of the new Genesis project - a $280,000 federally funded educational program for Ellis Manor preschoolers and their parents. "It's something for the kids to do besides this drug-dealing stuff."

The program is designed to encourage parents to take an active part in their child's learning from infancy through age 5, said Pat Thompson, teacher- coordinator of Genesis. The key to this, Thompson said, is parents participating in small group activities with their children, observing their play patterns and interacting with staff to learn better parenting skills.

Allen will work as an aide for Genesis, and her daughter Lacreshia will participate as well.

"We would like for as many residents to be involved as possible," Thompson said, "from preteens to the entire family. We're not going to stop here. If you see there's an opportunity to grow, you expand."

Genesis is the brainchild of officials from the Glassboro Board of Education, the Glassboro Housing Authority and the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders, who began planning more than a year ago. A federal Community Development Block Grant will keep Genesis afloat for at least one year.

Robert Broughton, executive director of county government services, said the Genesis program is primarily an intervention tool in young lives - lives that might otherwise wander down wrong paths later.

"Early intervention is where we need to focus education," he said. "If we can redirect four kids from the county jail - at $30,000 a year - it's worth it."

The hope of the Genesis program came not a moment too soon for Ellis Manor, which has been a haven for crime. Drug trafficking arrests are common. One

drug raid in 1990 netted 18 people.

But Ellis Manor didn't start out that way. In the 1960s, community planners envisioned the development as a vital part of Glassboro's urban renewal, which included factory and shop jobs for Ellis Manor residents. However, the ambitious plans for employment went awry, and the lure of easy money from drug deals have taken over 25 years later.

Genesis officials, through cooperative education with parents, said they hope to steer Ellis Manor children away from drugs and crime - although those specters exist side-by-side with their playground games.

"(The program will help) children develop long before they come to school," said Nicholas Mitcho, Glassboro School District's superintendent. ''It will provide direction for parents, information on health and

nutrition, and promote the development of language."

Mitcho said children growing up in better conditions learn how to speak and read from interacting with their parents, but in Ellis Manor, these activities are "not a priority."

Broughton has focused his attention on Ellis Manor before, though not on nearly the same financial scale. Last August, he used an $8,000 federal grant to bring in the Stageworks troupe to teach basic acting skills to Ellis Manor children ages 7 to 14. The grant also paid for a trip to a Stageworks production for the children and their parents.

The Genesis project calls for long-term commitment all around. Glassboro School District will employ four aides, all of them Ellis Manor residents. ''They all had to apply," Thompson said, "and some had experience working with children."

There is no cost to participants. At this stage, Mitcho said, Genesis can accommodate about 30 youngsters. But if more Ellis Manor parents want to enroll their children, Thompson said Genesis staff may be able to expand the sessions.

The program is in the pilot stage right now, Thompson said, but should be in full-swing by the end of the summer. There are two programs - one for

infants up to 18 months, and another for toddlers 18 months to 3 years old.

Parents and their infants will attend programs between 1 and 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, where staff will teach better parenting skills. Toddlers have a more extensive program. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, they will attend a two-hour morning program at the Genesis site without their parents. But on Wednesdays and Fridays, parents will accompany toddlers to either a morning or afternoon session, during which lunch will be served.

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