Strolling the South Side

A place of learning, peace and warmth

P.E.A.C.E., Inc. enjoys a prime location off of South Salina Street, yet Reshana Blackshear and her team members say they are still tirelessly trying to make the community aware of the organization’s existence and purpose.

“We want to know, how can we better serve you? How can we better serve each other? How can we help you be more self-sufficient, thrive and empower yourselves?” said Blackshear about the questions they ask themselves when helping children, parents and adults who use the program.

Reshana Blackshear, the director of Project Connection of P.E.A.C.E Inc., an after-school program for children with developmental disabilities, poses at the center on the South Side of Syracuse. | Allison Milligan, Staff Photo

The larger organization Project Connection is a part of P.E.A.C.E., Inc., and was developed in 1968. It serves community members from infancy into adulthood. With aid such as afterschool programs for children, tutoring for young adults and personal enrichment and support groups for adults and parents, there are a multitude of resources available for the surrounding South Side.

As Project Connection begins gearing up for its summer programs, Blackshear and her team members are putting up fliers around town calling for volunteers to help.

Blackshear has been working at Project Connection since January 2012, and she has been the main family support specialist and family resource center advocate since May 2012.

“We work with families with children who have special needs, specifically developmental disabilities,” Blackshear said.

However, one thing she wants the community to know is that the services do not end with the children. Her colleague, Melvina Matthews, agrees.

“Come here. Seek us out for help. We’re here for these services,” said Matthews, also a family support specialist at the center.

Children can chose from a wide range of activities, including playing video games, before doing homework and eating dinner at Project Connection of P.E.A.C.E Inc., an after-school program for children with developmental disabilities, on the South Side of Syracuse. | Allison Milligan, Staff Photo

P.E.A.C.E. and the programs within it are funded by the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. Project Connection offers services for children from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a focus on recreation. Children are dropped off by bus or family and can look forward to homework assistance, educational and interactive activities, group-building games on the Wii and Xbox and healthy snacks — something Matthews takes special pride in directing and helping to implement.

“We make sure we have more veggies, the right carbs, the right fruit, no sugar in our drinks,” said Matthews about some of the foods provided to youth instead of more popular, unhealthy snacks.

One way the center promotes engagement is by having the children help to make the food. They must identify on a nutritional chart in the kitchen what foods they are eating. This, Matthews says, helps to educate the children not only on how to eat healthier, but also on how to live healthier.

Michelle Coss, who started off with the center as an intern in November 2012, became so passionate and invested in the program’s growth that she decided to stay on and is now a family support assistant.

“I don’t see myself going anywhere for a very long time,” Coss said about just how much the center has become a part of her life. She sees the center moving toward success and is hopeful that with more enrollment of children and adults in the programs, that the center can create a positive difference in the community.

A positive example can be found in Shirley Bailey, 42, a new resident of the South Side. Bailey, who used the center in Baldwinsville on and off for 23 years, says the resources and services helped not only her children’s lives, but hers as well.

“They have really helped me throughout the years,” Bailey said. A parent of children with learning disabilities who utilized P.E.A.C.E.’s early head start programs, Bailey says that life would have been difficult had she not sought out the Family Resource Center (County West) in Baldwinsville. A student at the Women’s Opportunity Center, Bailey benefited so much from the aid she received that she wanted to give back by interning at the Southside Project Connection Center.

Children eat dinner at Project Connection of P.E.A.C.E Inc., an after-school program for children with developmental disabilities, on the South Side of Syracuse. | Allison Milligan, Staff Photo

“I wanted to volunteer to give back what was given to me over the years,” Bailey said. “And they’ve also helped me out a little bit since I’ve been here as well.”

Bailey interacts with the children and helps them out in their daily activities. Blackshear hopes that Bailey’s efforts will encourage others to volunteer as well.

“I want people to come to want to work in this environment, to want to know what it’s like to work with children with developmental disabilities,” Blackshear said. Those disabilities range from things like Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder to autism. “It’s not an easy job to do … so I want it to be something that is a desire, a love, dear to your heart.”

While all volunteers are welcome, Blackshear and her team are especially interested in recruiting more young men to volunteer to provide positive male role models.

David Gist, 25, is one of those role models that Project Connection is proud to have. While he’s only been a volunteer for a short time, he says the program is unlike any other he has seen and is close to his heart.

“I have a brother who has autism,” Gist said about why he chose to volunteer. “I want to help kids who don’t have a voice by influencing them with knowledge, teaching them life lessons.” Gist also credits the dedication of Blackshear and her team. “I’d rather be right here helping out than anywhere else.”

Williams shares what she wants South Side residents to know, especially if they are shy or hesitant to visit the center.

“If you have questions we’re here,” Williams said. “If there’s a parent out there with a special needs baby or child, who is not sure how to deal with it — come, call, email, we’ll help you out. And if we can’t, then we’re going to set you up with services that can.”

This is the type of center the entire staff wants the community to know is just a walk or short drive away. A place where people of all ages can feel safe, comfortable and at home. A place where people can look forward to a friendly face, a greeting at the door and a warm hug.

“We’ll stay with you,” Blackshear said. “It’s more than a job for us — we do it because we want to. We’re here to help you thrive.”