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Grier Heights families to get boost from new center

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/11/18/58/MMnLE.Em.138.jpeg|316
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    Artist Leslie Scott instructs Thompson Child & Family Focus staffers on making tiles for a large mural that will be part of Thompson's new building on Wendover Road.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/11/18/58/QFOoi.Em.138.jpeg|201
    TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
    Artist Leslie Scott demonstrates tile-making techniques for a large mural that will be part of Thompson Child & Family Focus's new building on Wendover Road.

One of the state’s best known children’s charities is joining the list of nonprofits and churches working to transform Charlotte’s troubled Grier Heights community.

On Saturday, Thompson Child & Family Focus is unveiling a $4.4 million facility in Grier Heights for vulnerable families, including programs to help both children and their parents.

The new 3.6-acre site at 769 N. Wendover Road is expected to help as many as 1,300 children and families, and also will offer space for Grier Heights residents to hold meetings.

Mary Jo Powers, CEO of Thompson, said the agency intended the relocation to Grier Heights to be a public statement of support for the community, though it also will serve people from outside that neighborhood.

“Grier Heights has been in the news with the violence there. It has that reputation now, and we felt it was the right thing to do to make it easier for struggling families there to get help,” Powers said.

“I’m not saying that we’re there to save people who can’t save themselves. That sometimes happens when organizations come in promising to improve things. We want to be part of the solution and provide support.”

She said her agency intends to do that by coordinating with other groups that serve at-risk youth and families in trauma, including parents who are in danger of having their children taken by the Department of Social Services.

The list of groups working in the neighborhood has been growing of late, including efforts by Habitat for Humanity, Freedom School Partners, the YMCA, the YWCA, Trips for Kids, the Charlotte Eagles professional soccer team, and nearby churches Grier Heights Presbyterian and Antioch Missionary Baptist.

Among the biggest initiatives is a plan by Myers Park Presbyterian to devote nearly $2 million, hundreds of volunteers and countless hours toward helping Grier Heights. It is working with the nonprofit CrossRoads Community Development Corp., which has spent $1.3 million buying lots in Grier Heights to built 36 new homes. (Eight have been built and eight more will be started next year.)

The neighborhood of 3,000 is three miles southeast of uptown Charlotte. It has a violent crime rate pegged at five times the city average, according to an Observer analysis of 2010 data. Three of four families relied on food stamps and the school dropout rate was twice as high as the city average.

Community concern about the neighborhood intensified early last year, when three young men were shot during a two-week period. Two died. One of the shootings came just hours after an anti-violence march.

Jonathan Belton, who was raised in Grier Heights, said Thompson’s new center is yet another sign that things are changing for the better. He’s part of that change, working with CrossRoads to open a new Grier Heights community Center.

“There are tremendous needs in Grier Heights, and one of them is transportation to services, so what Thompson is doing is a big help,” Belton said. “To change this community, we need to start with the children. We need them to look at their community in a different way.”

Thompson served more than 16,000 children and families last year and is one of the state’s leading nonprofit providers of treatment, care and education for at-risk children and families. It intends to offer expanded services in Grier Heights, including foster care, school-based intervention, parent education and family mentoring.

Those efforts focus on changing the behavior both of children and their parents, in cases where domestic violence and child abuse have been reported.

Community projects also will be part of the center’s mission, including murals and a nutrition program with on-site gardening.

Thompson’s new Grier Heights center replaces a smaller campus on Seventh Street, which was sold for $2.2 million. The money was applied to the cost of the new $4.4 million center, and a campaign is underway to raise the rest of the money.

The Wendover Road site had two existing buildings and Thompson’s plan called for connecting them with new construction for a total of 16,697 square feet. A $25,000 grant from Messer Construction helped create a 5,000-square-foot playground. At capacity, the center will have a staff of about 60.

Thompson operates other campuses in Matthews, on Clanton Road and York County. The new Grier Heights Center will be similar to the Clanton Road campus, in that both are intended to help residents of an area of Charlotte going through revitalization, officials said.

Surveys show the Clanton Road site has had success in reducing problems for families that have experienced domestic violence and child abuse, officials said.

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