Festival gives neighborhood summer break

In a north Baton Rouge apartment complex where some parents do not let their children play outside because of the neighborhood’s high crime rate, the sight of children playing on water slides, competing in sack races and slurping down snow cones Saturday at Summer Fest 2013 was a welcome sight for many.

During the celebration, sponsored by the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, the children and their parents at the St. Jean Apartment complex on South Harrell’s Ferry Road were out in force, running around in bathing suits and trying to win door prizes, with the holy grail being four bicycles standing prominently on stage.

Members of the Eastside Fire Department and the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, along with representatives from the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, the Women’s Help Center and the Mobile Pregnancy Center, among others, were also on hand to speak to and interact with the residents.

Residents said they enjoyed the event and hoped for more such happenings in the future.

New complex manager Angela Black said she plans to respond to those hopes by hosting similar events in the future.

“We’re trying to have some fun and win some free prizes,” said resident Tohloria Lewis, who was there with her two children, Lorian Lewis, 2, and Nathan Lewis, 7.

Summer Fest originally was set for June 1, but inclement weather forced officials to delay the event.

The Sheriff’s Office Community Policing Unit and members of the Sheriff’s Office Kleinpeter Substation were the hosts.

Capt. Steve Young, commander of the Kleinpeter Substation, said such gatherings are designed to give people, especially young children, an opportunity to meet and interact with law enforcement personnel in a positive way, not just when they are responding to calls for help or investigating crimes.

“A lot of kids run from us because we’re the police, when they should be running to us for help,” Young said.

Deputies served food and drinks to residents, coordinated activities and gave tours of their SWAT vehicle, which drew a lot of attention from curious onlookers.

Most of the questions Young received Saturday were raised by children wondering what the deputies carry on their utility belts.

Young said Summer Fest is an annual event that is held in various locations, usually in areas where crime is prevalent, which he said is the case in regard to the St. Jean Apartments.

In the last three weeks, authorities have arrested three St. Jean residents in connection with two homicides:

Tiara Dunmars and Jacqueline Cheatham arrested on June 11, both booked with first-degree murder in the death of 23-month-old Justyce Cheatham. East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark said Justyce Cheatham died from blunt force head injuries.

Christopher Spears, booked with first-degree murder and armed robbery in the shooting death of Brandon Carter on June 12.

But Black, the complex manager, was not buying talk of a crime problem Saturday — she said crime at St. Jean is no worse than other parts of the parish — and the complex gets a bad rap, especially in light of Justyce Cheatham’s death.

“That’s the first time we’ve had something like that,” she said of the beating death of Justyce Cheatham.

However, residents Janis Reed and Lenora Grant both said they believe crime is an issue, but things are getting better.

Reed said the reputation the complex has in regard to crime is justified, but the curfew for juveniles that management instituted as well as increased police patrols seem to be working.

Grant said she and other residents began an informal community watch in which some of the residents walk the complex at night, checking for suspicious activity.

“You think people don’t care anymore, but they do care,” she said.

She said the high rent at the complex may be a reason that children turn to crime.

“Little kids seeing their mother struggling for rent, they start acting up,” Grant said.