Daily Star photo/AARON MUELLER Mark VanTil, Niles Community Gardens organizer and Richard Weigel, Niles Community Schools superintendent, were among the area leaders at a community forum Tuesday. The event was organized by Pastor Bryant Bacon of Mount Calvary Baptist Church and focused on community improvement.

Local agents of change

Published 9:11pm Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Local leaders in the education, government, business and faith communities encouraged residents to get involved in bettering their community at a public forum Tuesday.

The discussion topic for the forum, hosted by Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Niles, was engaging the community as agents of change.

Pastor Bryant Bacon, the event organizer and moderator, said the event was to encourage “fellowship-style discussion” about issues in the community and how to address the problems.
Much of the discussion centered on the youth of the community.

Niles Community Schools Supt. Richard Weigel called for a new approach to education to better prepare students for the workforce. Weigel said students aren’t leaving high schools with the “soft skills” employers are desiring.

“They aren’t showing up to work on time, can’t work on teams, can’t communicate well,” he said. “Schools give knowledge but not the skills. The biggest obstacle right now is the tradition of education.”

Weigel said the New Tech wing at the high school begins to address this issue with a new breed of education in project-based learning.

Brandywine Community Schools Supt. John Jarpe agreed schools need to better prepare students with job-related skills.

“Work ethic is something we must absolutely teach,” he said. “People skills and communication are tremendously important.”

Jarpe and Weigel encouraged the faith community to encourage students to take their education seriously.

“We need to celebrate learning in congregations and civic organizations,” Weigel said.

Niles Community Gardens is one of the organizations doing just that, according to organizer Mark VanTil.

“Niles Community Gardens is growing more than just veggies,” he said. “We’re about education.

We had a lot of kids involved last year.”

Jeff Whittaker, pastor of Michiana Christian Embassy in Niles, said it will take stronger families to improve education.

“They say ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ But it takes strong families to make the village,” he said.

The forum also addressed how to curb crime in the community.

Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said the county encourages “community policing” through neighborhood watch programs and a crime prevention specialist educating the community on public safety topics.

Bailey said community support in public safety is critical, especially given the trying financial times for the county and local governments. The sheriff’s department has lost 13 deputies in the past several years due to budget cuts, he said.

Former Niles Police Chief and current Niles City Administrator Ric Huff said education plays a big role in public safety.

“In my mind, crime prevention starts at childhood, teaching what’s right and wrong,” he said. “It’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Ron Sather, president of the Four Flags Area Chamber of Commerce, said if people had jobs, crime rates would drop.

“If people were working, they wouldn’t be getting into trouble,” he said.

Sather said the misconception is there aren’t any jobs in Niles. But he said there are several manufacturers in the area that are choosing not to expand their business because they can’t find the skilled workers to do so.

“At Modineer (a Niles manufacturer), if you’re a welder and can pass a drug test, you will have a job,” Sather said. “But they just aren’t out there yet.”

Minnie Warren, owner of Niles-based manufacturing company Mintech, encouraged schools to return to offering vocational programs and trades training. Weigel said he would love to offer more of those programs in his district, but state testing requirements have his “hands tied.”

When the discussion turned to local government, Huff said the city is struggling to drum up citizen engagement.

“We’re having a very difficult time recruiting people to sit on committees and boards, which are the voice of the people,” Huff said.

Huff said there are many openings on committees and boards that he can’t fill due to lack of response.

Another issue in the city is declining property values due to lack of maintenance of homes and buildings.

“We’re working on code enforcement. We need to encourage people to take care of their property,” Huff said.

Bacon indicated he plans to host more community forums in the future to continue the conversation and bring change in the community.

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