BELLEVILLE — Belleville residents and students gathered Monday morning at Lindenwood University-Belleville in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to discuss how they can improve the city.
The panel of college and high school students answered questions from the audience on how to help youths be active in the community, deter crime and keep students in Belleville after they graduate.
Ideas from the panelists and attendees will be incorporated into the city of Belleville's new 20-year comprehensive plan, which is being drafted this year.
The 17th Street Corridor Neighborhood Association organized the fourth annual MLK Day of Observance and Service Community Conversation Cafe Forum at Lindenwood.
Ashley Pollock, a Lindenwood adjunct professor of history, moderated the event, which focused on the topic, "If I could change the community." Pollock also is director of academic student success and retention.
Pollock talked about Martin Luther King Jr.'s civic duty and how his efforts included people across ages, religion and city boundaries.
William G. Ford, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, said he attended the event to hear what young people in Belleville have to say about current issues in the city. Ford is also a former East St. Louis teacher and currently owns the Educational Success Store in Belleville.
Ford, 56, urged everyone to demonstrate leadership by getting involved.
"There's no shame in realizing what issues we have to address," Ford said. "Get involved. ... This city belongs to you."
LeAnn Koch, 34, a lifelong Belleville resident affiliated with the Belleville Americorps and Belleville Parks and Recreation Department, presented one such issue.
Koch asked for the panel's advice on how to maintain city structures when there are youths who vandalize such amenities. For instance, a basketball hoop might be torn down the week after it is installed, Koch said.
Jalon Albert, a panelist from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, said it's key to have constant organized activity and volunteers on site.
If everyone in the community gathers for the opening of the park the first weekend and then do not return, then kids will see it as a place to gather without adult supervision.
"But if you have three-on-three tournaments there every weekend, people will want to keep it decent," Albert said.
Panelist Melissa Brown, vice president of the 17th Street neighborhood group, said officials could also have children interested in the site to take a class with Big Brothers Big Sisters or Americorps on how to maintain public properties in a respectable way.
Jevar Glover, 20, also a panelist, said it is important to start early and find a "niche" for every child, may it be sports, art, music or politics.
Students have three months out of the year where they can work on that talent or skill because not everyone is going to be a straight-A student, Glover said. For him, it was sports.
Glover is a double major in accounting and marketing at Lindenwood. He also plays on the football team and serves as a residential assistant.
Glover, a Chicago native, said Belleville can market itself as a small town where students can be comfortable and concentrate.
"We don't lose sight of our values here," Glover said.
Still, Adrian Ming, 20, said he would like to stay in Belleville after graduation, but it's easier to find a job in St. Louis where he is from.
Ming, a business administration major at Lindenwood and a member of the football team, said there are few things for students to do in downtown Belleville before they turn 21.
The other panel members were Eric Hobson, of Belleville East High School; Derrick Williams of Lindenwood University-Belleville, and Cbabi Bayoc, an artist who grew up in O'Fallon.
Mayor Mark Eckert thanked the panelists and attendees for their ideas. He spoke of the improvements that rise from community involvement in areas such as the Franklin Neighborhood and now through Gloria Crowder's leadership with the 17th Street Corridor Neighborhood Association.
In closing, Crowder talked about how important it is to bring everyone together to share ideas.
Crowder said she remembers sitting in a segregated school watching the Civil Rights March on Washington and remembering asking God: "Please let me remember this. Please envelope me with the power to speak ... to bring people together."
At the end of the event, the group of about 50 attendees stood together and shouted a new slogan: "Belleville: bigger, better and constantly bridging."