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Plethora of summer events, activities highlights community support of youths

COURTESY PHOTO: GRESHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT - Gresham Officer Mike Erickson passed out sticker badges after stopping by a local pre-school. One Gresham Police officer found himself out of his element a few months ago while responding to a burglary.

A single mom holding a newborn was distraught to find her car had been broken into, with the thief taking her breast pump and other childcare supplies. The young mother was overwhelmed about how she was going to feed her baby.

But the officer, who didn't want to be named, acted quickly. He went to a Walgreens open late at night and navigated the aisles to purchase everything the mom needed — out of his own pocket.

"He is a single guy without kids so he was definitely out of his element," said Gresham Police Chief Robin Sells with a laugh. "But he went above and beyond for that mom."

As the average age of Gresham skews younger, with more families moving into the region, the city is laser focused on providing support to youth. From the City Council to every department within City Hall, Gresham wants to provide services and amenities to uplift children and keep them from falling through the cracks.

That was not always the case.

About a decade ago, the city of Gresham was forced to make the tough choice to cut many programs for children. The decision was made in the wake of the Great Recession, as the city government was trying to find ways to stretch funds in support of critical services.

Although there were fewer young families in the community at the time, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis said it was a difficult decision to make, and one they quickly rethought.

"We learned we have to give kids something to do," Bemis said.

Growing up in the community, Bemis fondly remembers his own childhood, where there was always something going on in the parks. That meant afternoons spent enjoying the many amenities in the community alongside his family and other residents of the city.

"Having events geared toward kids reminds families about everything we have available in the community, and that everyone kind of likes each other," Bemis said.

Nowhere is that mission more apparent than at local parks during the summer. Monday, June 24, the city, along with its partners, launched the popular Summer Kids in the Park program.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Volunteer Stacy Price passed out sack lunches during the start of Summer Kids in the Park Monday, June 24, at Red Sunset Park. The SKIP program is a chance for local kids to spend their summer afternoons safely playing in three different community parks. From June 24 through Aug. 16, anyone age 18 and younger can participate with no registration required. Fun activities and free lunches are scheduled every day.

SKIP is held at Main City Park, 219 S. Main Ave.; Red Sunset Park, 2403 N.E. Red Sunset Drive; and Rockwood Central Park, 17707 S.E. Main St. Lunch was served by Gresham-Barlow School District, while Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland provided activities.

"Kids are everything, if we help them be engaged they become tomorrow's leaders," said Gresham Councilor Janine Gladfelter.

Youthful opportunities

PMG FILE PHOTO - During the inaugural Gresham Lilac Run, organizers made sure to have a Little Lilac fun run for all the children. Planning Gresham's inaugural Lilac Run, Sasha Konell kept getting one question from the excited runners — is there something for my kid to do?

The runners were gearing up to take on the 5k and 10k, but for many leaving their children alone on a Saturday morning wasn't really an option. Konell, Gresham's community marketing coordinator, had an easy solution. The event would have a "Little Lilac" run.

"Our mayor and council are focused on kids and families," she said. "People want things for their kids to do at all of these community events."

All of the events that take place in Gresham throughout the year have a strong component of activities geared toward youths:

n The Gresham Arts Festival has a massive Kids Village packed with activities and the annual Guinness World Record attempts.

-The I Heart Rockwood festival combines the best of the Nadaka Community Festival and Rock the Block with face painting and more.

- Every year, City Fest has departments throughout City Hall show off what they do in kid-friendly ways.

- Gresham's newest event, the Juneteenth community celebration, had bouncy castles, free bike helmets and lots of other games geared toward youths.

Bemis also pointed out the importance of also having facilities and places for children to go:

- Funding for Gradin Community Sports Park's phase 2 is being secured, which will expand the number of fields available.

- The city is also moving forward with a Metro regional government joint-project to develop Gabbert Butte Nature Park, bringing more trails into the city. Across the entire parks system, city staff are working to fund and construct more playgrounds.

Another new amenity that jumps out to Bemis is the completion of several futsal courts around the community. Spearheaded by Ricki Ruiz, community services coordinator, the courts were brought to places that sat vacant for a long time.

"When you see kids at Vance Park playing futsal in a place that used to be overgrown — that is a success," Bemis said. "Before they had to use backpacks to mark goals, now there is a better option."

Stickers and baseball

PMG FILE PHOTO - Gresham police officer Ben Costigan helps a young resident try on a police vest during City Fest. Every time Chief Sells makes a new hire, she has a strict policy to share.

"I tell them they must always have a pocketful of stickers whenever they are on duty," Sells said.

Her officers quickly realize the sticker badge policy is non-negotiable, and take to heart the important task of connecting with youths in the community.

It's not too difficult for them to adapt. Many of the officers patrolling Gresham live in the community with young families of their own. The officers are a common sight at different events, as are the police cadets. They make their presence known at different community gatherings as a way to spread cheer and attempt to break down walls between law enforcement and the people they serve.

"An officer will never know when they may find a kid in need of some cheer," Sells explained. "We have to start somewhere to show we are friends and are here to keep the community safe."

The support for children doesn't just come from local government. Plenty of nonprofit organizations, businesses and service groups spend countless hours and dollars focused on local youths. Helping local children no matter what circumstances they find themselves in, has become a city-wide effort.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis said the entire city is focused on supporting children and the young families flocking to the community. During Play Ball Gresham!, a free annual baseball and softball event held in June, Bemis dropped to one knee when a little girl came up to him who had gotten turned around and couldn't find her older sister.

Before she became upset, the mayor chatted with her while city staff located her sibling. Bemis complimented her on the Play Ball Gresham! T-shirt she was proudly wearing, asked what her favorite part of the day was, and — before she hurried off to take part in a game with her sister — gave her a high-five.

"These kids are the most important thing in our community," Bemis said with a smile.

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