Police officers, city officials, and residents canvased the Fruitland Heights neighborhood, meeting up at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church for the Not My Son weekly initiative.
BY MARK PARKER, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — It was a muggy, rainy, late-June evening on the south side of St. Pete as City Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Father Stephan Brown rallied their troops for some opening words and prayer before setting out on the evening’s mission.
On June 25, St. Joseph Catholic Church in the Fruitland Heights neighborhood hosted that week’s Not My Son (NMS) event, and these troops were there to form positive relationships in the hopes of bettering the surrounding community.
“We are at a place right now where our community and our young people need to see examples – now more than ever,” said Figgs-Sanders before people were split into teams and began canvassing the neighborhood. “And we are making a major impact in the community itself.”
In late 2015, multiple violent crimes took the lives of seven young men in less than two months. Rev. Kenny Irby, director of Community Intervention for the St. Petersburg Police Department and Mayor Rick Kriseman made a commitment to the community to “turn tragic situations like these around and bring positive opportunities to younger kids,” Irby said.
Since 2016, the program starts its campaign beginning in May or June and continues every Friday until August. The group is made up of police officers, city officials, and residents. Each Friday, groups go door-to-door to a different area in south St. Pete to bring awareness of positive encouragement and action to help keep young adults and children safe.
Officers from both the St. Pete Police Department and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office were on hand to participate in the canvassing. While recognizing that some people may not be as happy as others to have police approaching their door, officers and organizers realize that they need to be seen as accessible and in a positive light. While some officers are assigned to this detail, others volunteer to be a part of it.
A key component of the evening’s community interaction was offering everyone vaccinations. Representatives of the Health Department were on-site to administer free vaccines, both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Heavy’s Food Truck served free hot meals and gave away $20 grocery vouchers to all who attended.
Donning NMS t-shirts and armed with yard signs and pamphlets, groups of officers and volunteers began to comb the neighborhood, knocking on every door they came to. Most everyone that answered allowed a sign to be put in their yard and listened to the purpose of the evening.
Brown was passionate about inviting people back to the church for free vaccines and meals. But most importantly, he built relationships with his extended flock.
He noted that there were people in the neighborhood that had deaths in the family, and even though they are not Catholic, he has invited them to the church and performed nondenominational services for them.
“That’s what community is at St. Joe’s,” said Brown. “We just keep at it, and we try and find creative ways to bring people together, so they know they have a home here and that this community cares.
“We’ve become known as the church that cares because, in this community, I’m the only pastor that walks the neighborhood.”
Brown said he has found that kids aged 13 to 17 tend to get in the most trouble, and that is why he looks for ways to get them off the street. He said he has offered lunch and planned activities such as go-carting and horseback riding, along with trips to the aquarium.
However, it is difficult to get people to come out. Not My Son aims to boost familiarity and build trust among these youth and their parents throughout the summer.
Every Friday at 6 p.m., NMS meets at a different church of varying denominations from May until August. Brown said the goal is to cover the entire south side and that everything is “grassroots level and faith-based.”
Brown also stresses the importance of providing a haven for at-risk kids, noting St. Joseph’s is currently working on a youth center that will feature an area for weights, video games, and art, as well as communal space and a kitchen.
“We can’t just say, ‘talk to your children,'” said Brown. “We also have to say, ‘these are programs we’re offering for your children.’”
Brown adds that the community center will often be staffed by police, providing opportunities to build positive new relationships.
“The most important thing is that the lives of these young people matter,” said Brown. “Not only do they matter, but they are valued. Their input, their involvement, their safety, and their well-being are crucial to the future of us as a community.
“That’s the one thing I can say about this program – but it only works if people get involved. That’s how it works.”
Join the Not My Son canvassers at 6 p.m. on July 8 at Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4000 5th Ave. S. Contact Rev. Clark Hazley at 727-321-7375 for more information.
Click here to take the Not My Son pledge.
To reach Mark Parker, email firstname.lastname@example.org