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For Virginia Beach teens, Parks After Dark program offers ‘distraction from the bad stuff’

VIRGINIA BEACH – As a group of Bayside teenage boys split into two teams for flag football Thursday night at Williams Farm Park, De’Angelyna Clark, 13, stood on the sidelines with friends.

More than a hundred other children and teens played games, listened to music, jumped in an inflatable boat, enjoyed crafts and dined with friends at the city-sponsored Parks After Dark event.

“This is a place where we can all connect,” Clark said.

The free summer program aims to provide structured activities in an effort to keep youth away from violence.

The city launched Parks After Dark last summer and is back this year from Thursday to Saturday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. The event series is an initiative of Virginia Beach’s Youth Violence Prevention Task Force and is modeled after a similar program in Los Angeles called Summer Night Lights, which city officials attended in 2022.

It works in Bayside. Several high school students present Thursday said fights between teenage boys and girls are a problem in their neighborhood.

“This is a distraction from the bad stuff,” Clark said.

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Kylan Rousseau, 12, agreed.

“It’s a safe environment for kids,” he said, adding that he would otherwise be playing video games at home.

Parks After Dark had a budget of $444,000 last summer, and about 12,000 people attended, according to the city.

This year the program runs until August 24. Plans are in the works to add Parks After Dark locations in Green Run and Level Green for summer 2025.

The City Council heard more about the program and other youth-related services during a meeting Tuesday.

The briefings followed a fatal shooting on May 25, when police said a teenager opened fire at a gathering of people outside the Mount Trashmore Summer Carnival. Jeyani Renee Upshur, 15, died and an 18-year-old man, who is charged in connection with the shooting, was injured. Police Chief Paul Neudigate said after the shooting that most of the city’s homicides this year involved minors.

Police Lt. Kevin Lokey, who oversees the department’s youth services unit, highlighted efforts to build relationships in the community and reduce juvenile crimes through Parks After Dark and other efforts.

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Police officers, chaplains and patrol assistants will be present throughout the summer during programming at Williams Farm Park.

Mayor Bobby Dyer said he requested the update from police after speaking with other regional city leaders during a conference call last week about youth violence.

“Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck said the best thing a city can do right now is bring in the police chief and department and explain what we’re all doing,” Dyer said. “There are a lot of things going on that people need to know about, and I think that will provide some comfort to the public.”

Some crime in Bayside, including aggravated assault, theft from vehicles and robberies, decreased during Parks After Dark’s operating hours in 2023, compared to the previous summer, according to police data.

The park events also provide employment opportunities for teens and young adults who help run the activities through the city’s summer youth employment program. People ages 16 to 21 are eligible, and residents of the Bayside community are among those who have found jobs.

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“It’s great to be able to financially empower the young people you want to engage,” Tiffany Cowell, coordinator of the city’s Youth Opportunities Office, said at the meeting. “It also gave the kids the opportunity to be part of the solution for their community.”

Councilwoman Jennifer Rouse, who urged the city to add Parks After Dark in Green Run next year, praised the initiative.

“Neighbors can come around each other and just be safe, laugh and have fun,” Rouse said. “It’s just incredible what those little opportunities can do.”

Michael Kirschman, parks and recreation director, said the city plans to recruit more community partners, including local restaurants, and will seek grants to help cover costs.

“The sky is the limit when it comes to where this can go in the future,” Kirschman said.

Many teens at Williams Farm Park said Thursday that they participated in Parks After Dark last year and are excited to be back.

“Everyone comes out and enjoys football,” said Calvin Hammond, 14. “I love it.”

Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125, stacy.parker@pilotonline.com

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