NASHUA -- A new picture of life in the city's neighborhoods is taking shape thanks to the time and talent of a special focus group.
A crew of kid photographers from the Police Athletic League's Youth Safe Haven community center and the Boys and Girls Club has been on assignment since last spring documenting some of the city's problems and promise as part of PhotoVoice Nashua, a visual arts project launched to spark conversation — and maybe inspire some change. Their work will be on display at PAL's Youth Safe Haven open house on Nov. 26, from 5 to 7 p.m.
"Looking through the camera opened my eyes," said Michael Frith, 11, who added that he knows the city like the back of his hand. "I was taking pictures of the bad stuff in Nashua, but not necessarily just the bad stuff," he said. "I would take pictures of something like littering, things that should stop."
PhotoVoice is an international PAL project that helps adults and advocates understand their community from the perspective of young people. Frith and his fellow photographers shot pictures of spots in their neighborhood marked by trash, graffiti and random types of vandalism.
Shaun Nelson, executive director of Safe Haven, said the project started with a donation from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to buy the cameras. In addition to some basic photography training, the kids had some help from the Manchester-based Media Power Youth group, which helps young people understand how to use media and imagery to promote a positive message.
"One of the best parts was the conversations we had," said Frith, who added that the group talked a lot about alcohol and tobacco use.
Although adults continually pound home the message that smoking and drinking are destructive, kids are surrounded by advertising and imagery that tout cheap cigarettes and beer. Some of the PhotoVoice photographers captured those conflicting messages with pictures of displays and signs from local stores.
"The intention is to give a voice to folks that don't have one," said Nelson, adding that the project is just one of many opportunities kids have at the Safe Haven center, an old school building on Ash Street that's been converted into a busy neighborhood youth hub.
The center offers tutoring and homework help, sports, games, arts and other activities to kids, most of whom live downtown in what's become known as the "Tree Streets" neighborhood, an area that includes Ash, Palm, Pine and Vine streets.
"PAL does everything and anything to keep kids hooked in a positive direction," said Nelson. "Anytime kids want to do positive things, we are here to encourage it."
Founded more than 70 years ago, PAL is a national juvenile crime-prevention program with local chapters in more than 400 cities and towns. PAL's central goals are to provide positive youth activities and build relationships between kids and police.
PAL is best known for its sports teams; hundreds of Nashua kids participate in PAL's Force Spirit and Football program, which has racked up 32 state, regional and national championship titles.
Affiliated with the local Gate City Striders running club, PAL's running program for kids ages 7 to 18 has more than 60 members involved in cross-country, road racing and track and field. The top floor of the Safe Haven center, meanwhile, is a boxing gym with a ring for champs in the making.
About 50 kids stop in at the center each day for the activities, all of which are free, but Nelson said there's plenty of room and the door is always open.
One of the problems Safe Haven faces is mustering the community support for more programs and outreach.
"People hear 'PAL,' and they think we're all set," Nelson said. But Safe Haven depends on grants and donations to keep the lights on and the programs running, and the staff is almost exclusively made up of volunteers, he said.
"What we really want to do is get people who are invested in the community to join us," he said.