Easter Fest a response to shooting deaths

by W. Winston Skinner


Newnan Mayor Pro-Tem Cynthia Jenkins, right, and retired educator Rebecca Gibson compare notes after the meeting where initial plans for Saturday’s Easter Fest were made. 

The hail of bullets that rocked Coweta County a few weeks ago is being met with an Easter egg hunt – one that organizers hope will bring the community together.

There were seven shootings in Coweta from March 25 through early April. Three young men died after being shot in the Chalk Level community east of downtown Newnan.

There have been prayer meetings, discussions by law enforcement officials about gangs and funerals. A meeting on April 1 in the Newnan City Council chambers brought together Chalk Level residents, city and county officials and representatives of social service groups and churches.

Concerns were expressed about people in the neighborhoods – particularly homeowners and renters – being separated from each other. “We need to bring them together somehow,” said Glynis Tanner of the Housing Authority of Newnan.

An Easter Fest event, which will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Central Educational Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Newnan, is the first step in that communication-connection process.

“This was an idea born from the collaborative that met a few weeks ago,” said Newnan Mayor Pro-Tem Cynthia Jenkins, who organized the April 1 meeting. “It's the beginning of neighbors coming together to get to know each other, listen to each other, understand each other and work together for betterment of our community.”

Saturday’s event will involve “food, fun, prizes and an Easter egg hunt,” Jenkins said. “This is an opportunity for our community to come together to enjoy each other.”

Sponsors for the Easter Fest include the Chalk Level Neighborhood Association, the Housing Authority of Newnan, the Coweta Cobras athletic organization and other non-profit groups. Several businesses are also sponsoring the event.

At the April 1 meeting, the approximately 45 people present identified five areas that need to be addressed: jobs, separation or communication within the neighborhoods, activities for all ages groups but particularly youth, gangs and drugs, and problems associated with high concentrations of rental properties.

“The first project is one to improve communication,” Jenkins said. Chalk Level had a neighborhood association before the crimes of recent weeks. Rocky Hill, a predominantly African-American neighborhood west of downtown, is organizing a similar group.

“These organizations of neighbors will be instrumental in giving the people that live in the neighborhoods a forum to voice their concerns, organize and interact with service providers who want to positively impact the neighborhood,” Jenkins said.

There will be booths with information available on the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, Housing Authority, both neighborhood associations, the Newnan Police Department and various church organizations.

Food will be served at 2 p.m. and the egg hunt is set to start at 3 p.m.

At the April 1 meeting, Jenkins presided. “Sometimes we stay in our own bubble. I wanted to see what our overarching concerns are,” she said.

Jenkins had invited officials from a wide range of organizations to the summit. “You are in this room because you have a vital piece of the puzzle,” she said.

She said residents in the Chalk Level neighborhood centered on Pinson Street had already been concerned about the possibility of violence. The Monday before the first shooting, there was a neighborhood association meeting. The feeling was that something needed to be done or something terrible would take place.

“Lo and behold, the next day, it did happen,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said Chalk Level has the highest concentration of poverty in the county and the highest concentration of rental units – including about 200 Housing Authority apartments. It has been identified as one of three high crime areas – the others being Rocky Hill and Fairmount-Eastgate – in the city.

“We have an area median income of about $20,000,” Jenkins said. “That’s household income.”

Statistics from 2008 showed the average Chalk Level resident has a ninth grade – or less – education. “We’ve got to deal with those issues,” Jenkins said.

Newnan Police Chief Douglas “Buster” Meadows and Assistant Chief Rodney Riggs both talked about the prevalence of calls from rental units in lower-income areas of town.

Sandra Strozier, executive director of the housing authority, said problems on Housing Authority of Newnan property often come from elsewhere.

“A lot of the situations – people who are arrested are not residents. They congregate in front of an apartment, but they are not residents. That’s been a major problem for us,” she said. She said those individuals are sometimes guests of HAN residents.

Because the HAN apartments front public streets, the authority cannot charge people with criminal trespass if they are loitering in the street.

Efforts are being made to reach young people in the impacted communities. Daryle Smith, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs, said the clubs reach out to teens. He noted people involved in the recent shooting have been young adults.

“Once they max out, you have the same problem again,” Smith said. A representative of a local church said the shootings point to a need for adults in Newnan to hear from young people.

Smith has shared his story – how he escaped from a life that seemed destined to end in sadness.

“I was that kid,” he said at the city hall summit. “We’ve really got to reach out to those kids. This meeting is good. We’ve got to go to them. They are not coming to us. They’re not coming to us because of the lack of trust.”

“Our appeal and our approach have to be better,” said Jeremy Tuck, pastor of Oak Grove Baptist Church. “If the gangs are more appealing, we have to work on our appeal.”

“If you don’t have the buy-ins in these communities, you can forget it. That’s what we’ve got to work on,” said Carol Prince, coordinator for Coweta Family Connection.

“The spiritual disconnect in the community” was a concern for Marcus Dixon, pastor of Newnan Chapel United Methodist Church.

Many area residents are “not connecting with the churches in the community,” Dixon said. “Our churches are suffering, but there are people all around us. I don’t know the answer, but I know there is a spiritual disconnect.”

Jenkins said the Easter Fest will serve as a catalyst to bring people from different parts of the community together – to talk to each other and to help foster a shared sense of community.

“We’re going to learn a lot if we do it right. At that Easter egg hunt, we’re going to learn a lot from the people who come,” Jenkins said.

The committee will meet again May 6 at 1 p.m. in the council chambers. The group is also planning to work with Oak Grove on a job fair. “I love that,” Jenkins said. “It’s something that’s tangible. It’s measurable.”

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