Champaign duo use after-school program to reduce violence in one low-income neighborhood

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Satellite view of Countrybrook Apartments/Google

The Countrybrook Apartment complex is no stranger to on-going violence and tragedy.

The apartment complex tucked into the 2500 block of West Springfield Ave. in Champaign, Illinois, has been home to multiple fatal shootings over the last decade. The most recent shooting took the life of a 21-year-old Scott Roth on May 5, earlier this year, according to Champaign Police Reports. 

According to the report, Roth’s death, “came about 22 hours after an exchange of gunfire early Saturday at the Countrybrook apartment complex on West Springfield Avenue that police Chief Anthony Cobb described as a ‘gun battle.’ One man was injured in that incident.” 

On Nov. 25, 2017, 28-year-old Martrell Johnson was shot and killed in the complex parking lot. After two years of police investigations, 30-year-old Travis Marshall was charged with first-degree murder, but was offered a second-degree murder plea-deal and will spend 20 years in prison as of July, according to court documents and Champaign Police reports. 

Countrybrook has seen at least two other shooting incidents resulting in serious injury or death since 2012. 

One of Countrybrook’s signs at the corner / Meghan Rest

Two Champaign natives, Tina Newberry and Latricia Johnson,  said they are committed to reducing violence in the low-income neighborhood.

Countrybrook is one of five project-based rent-subsidized apartment complexes in the greater Champaign area and the only one that provides housing for families; the other four are exclusive to senior citizens, according to Champaign area housing advocate, Esther Patt.

Countrybrook has 76 two- and three-bedroom townhouses for families and children, and 74 one-bedroom apartments designated for senior citizens. Since Countrybrook is a low-income housing solution, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pays a share of tenants’ rent, which is determined by a household’s gross income.  

According to Patt, there are about 2,800 households in Champaign County receiving rent subsidies, while about 15,000 need subsidies. HUD sponsored housing in the Champaign area, including Countrybrook, have waitlists and seldom have vacancies. 

Low-income families have few options when it comes to housing in Champaign. On-going crime, especially in neighborhoods such as Countrybrook, isn’t enough to deter families from living there. Moving out of the complex means families are forced to give up their subsidies, since aid is attached to apartment units, not households, according to Patt. 

“(Countrybrook residents) are all people who cannot afford market rent; that’s why they are there,” Patt said in an email. “Moving is not an option for most. The tenants who are not senior citizens are working poor. A single parent would have to work 72 hours a week to afford a cheap two-bedroom apartment in Champaign-Urbana without a subsidy. So rent subsidy is vital for housing stability.”

Johnson and Newberry recognized this issue early on.

Since families have few alternative housing options, the duo decided to bring Unified 4 Life into the community.

Johnson said Unified 4 Life’s first step in executing its afterschool program was becoming a piece of the community’s culture. Since its creation, the program has offered afterschool snacks, downtime, time to work on homework and leadership activities focused on building life skills using a curriculum created by Newberry. 

However, since Unified 4 Life is a new non-profit organization, a majority of the funding stems from out-of-pocket contributions from Johnson and Newberry, as well as small fundraising events and donations. The organization is also heavily supported by volunteers. 

“I always say, it takes a village to raise a child,” Johnson said. “Well, this is our village and these are our children. That’s why we’re unified and that’s why we’re called Unified 4 Life, because we’re unifying everyone in the community and outside the community, and we’re trying to come together to make these children’s lives better.” 

Assimilating into the community has been more proactive than teaching children the same skills in a classroom setting, Newberry said. Unified 4 Life focuses on teaching children to use these leadership skills at school, at home and in their everyday lives, not just for a few hours after school. 

Newberry, who owns ATA Martial Arts Studio in Champaign, used her experiences in martial arts to write a book titled “Raising a Leader for Life.”

The book has created an outline for teaching leadership skills such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking to children living at Countrybrook. 

“It really focuses a 360 view of where (the kids) are at now and what tools they will need in their future,” Newberry said. “When you submerge them in this method, they will really be able to hone life skills, leadership skills, find their purpose, their truest identity and be able to practice that while they’re children.” 

Since beginning the program, Newberry and Johnson said they’ve seen an increase in children’s preparedness, confidence and overall desire to learn. But unlike other afterschool programs, parents are required to check-in with the Unified 4 Life team once a month.

“(We’re) getting parental involvement slowly, we’re not giving them parent guilt, parent shame,” Newberry said. “But we’re giving their kids an atmosphere where they can be away from peer pressure and be included.”

Despite Unified 4 Life’s early impact on the children living in the Countrybrook community, there have been challenges in executing afterschool care. 

“I think it’s sometimes difficult to get even the participants to understand the need,” Johnson said. “It requires some dedication, goals and life skills, and these are things they think ‘Oh, I’ve understood’ or have been taught. So how do we actually teach them? How do we get them to want to change?”

And while the program is still in its infancy, according to Newberry and Johnson, Unified 4 Life’s afterschool outreach at Countrybrook is looking for ways to expand. Newberry said they hope to start teaching activities such as fishing, cooking and dance to continue the organization’s mission of ending violence in the apartment community.  

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