Through her volunteer work in group homes and in dealings with her own two teenagers, Talanda Burton says she’s learned that many young people just want an adult to take an interest in their lives.

“They just need someone to pay attention, get involved,” said Burton, a mother of four.

The promise of making a difference – and the potential of a part-time job – brought Burton and nine other Austin residents to an orientation session last week to learn about a new, state-funded anti-violence program called Mentoring Plus Jobs, run by Kingdom Community Inc.

The idea, based on a model used in Philadelphia, is to train youths to spread messages about life skills and health issues to their peers – and in the process, give them the confidence and people skills needed to communicate with strangers, said Regina Underwood, the program’s coordinator.

Starting in May, youths and adults will be trained on a topic each week – such a HIV/AIDS prevention – and, wearing Mentoring Plus hats and T-shirts, will hand out educational fliers near shopping areas, in parks and at job or health fairs, Underwood told the applicants. Sixteen adult mentors, three supervisors and 80 youths between the ages of 15 and 21 will be hired in coming weeks.

“We’re gonna be right here in Austin,” Underwood said. “We’re gonna blitz this community with some wonderful, powerful messages.”

Mentoring Plus Jobs is the first of four programs that will soon be operating on the West Side thanks to $1.2 million in state Neighborhood Recovery Initiative grants. The way the program began in Austin drew some controversy earlier this year after grantees were named.

Some community members said the grant money was doled out unfairly, and in the run-up to the Feb. 22 aldermanic election, opposing candidates attacked 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham for her part in the process.

Critics railed that of the four areas funded (mentoring, leadership, prisoner re-entry and school counseling), at least two grants went to organizations with ties to the alderman – a $290,000 mentoring grant to Kingdom Community, run by Graham’s pastor, Rev. John Abercrombie, and a $100,000 parent leadership grant to the Learning Network Center, headed by Luther Syas, who some said circulated aldermanic petitions for Graham.

The African American Mentoring Group, Westside Health Authority, Living Word Christian Center Prison Ministry and Campaign for a Drug Free Westside also received funding.

Graham said she had nothing to do with those decisions. As requested by Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, Graham said she suggested organizations that might oversee the whole $1.2 million operation, among them Circle Family Health, which was selected and awarded a $275,000 grant. But that’s where her involvement stopped, she said.

It was Circle Family Health, not her, that oversaw how the money was parceled out, Graham said, a statement backed by Circle’s CEO, Dr. Andre Hines.

The decisions were made by an advisory committee of residents and people from area nonprofits, Hines said.

That committee, which was open to the community, included Syas of Learning Network Center, Atena McPhaden and Odette Alleyne of Westside Health Authority and Vanedda Taliferro of Kingdom Community, according to a list provided by Circle Family Health, although it is unclear whether those members were present at the Dec. 9 meeting when votes were cast. (See sidebar.)

Hines declined to provide a list of that meeting’s attendees.

If they were there, Hines maintains that any committee members who were in the running for grant money did not vote in the categories for which they were being considered.

Applicants at Kingdom Community on Thursday didn’t seem fazed about any controversy. After the 90-minute orientation, nine of the 10 were eager to fill out applications. The lone opt-out had scheduling problems.

(Note: Committee members’ names were provided by Circle Family Health, but organizational affiliations were made, when possible, by AustinTalks.)

  • Al Taylor
  • Anthony T. Raggs, Root-Riot Urban Garden Network
  • Atena McPhaden, Westside Health Authority
  • Bob Mead, Circle Urban Ministries
  • Charles Levy
  • Cora Montgomery, Circle Family Care
  • Dr. Ilean Kelly
  • Earlene Holman
  • Frankie White
  • Fredrick Jackson
  • Gloria Harris
  • Greg Brown
  • John Williams
  • Jonathan Currie, Austin Safety Net Works
  • Linda Horton
  • Lisa Hopkins
  • Luther Syas, Learner Network Center
  • Lyn Mack
  • Margie Ware
  • Megan Olson
  • Mike Ivers, GoodCity
  • Naeem Karriem, Developing Young Minds
  • Odette Alleyne, Westside Health Authority
  • Reggie Bachus Jr., Austin Coming Together
  • Rosita Dotson
  • Thomas Bowling, Westside Youth League
  • Vanessa Taliferro, Kingdom Community Inc.
  • Vicki Taylor
  • William Park

If you go

  • Additional orientation sessions at Kingdom Community Inc., 5151 W. Madison
  • Tuesday, March 29 at 5 p.m.; Wednesday, March 30 at 2 p.m.; Thursday, March 31 at 2 p.m.
  • Space is limited. Contact Regina Underwood: 773-379-7229 or to RSVP.