Center For Neighborhood Revival

The New Allied Family Center Will Serve The Community’s Families And Youths

By Sandy Cullen
Wisconsin State Journal, June 8, 2006

Ana Smith-Carson knows the kind of difference the Boys and Girls Club can make in the lives of young people.

“I think they had a big part in me being who I am right now,” said Smith-Carson, 19, a staff member at the new Allied Family Center, which the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County will open to the community on Saturday.

To some, the $3.2 million facility at 4619 Jenewein Drive is the first beacon of hope in turning around the decadelong downslide of the Allied Drive neighborhood, where the area’s highest levels of poverty, joblessness and crime are concentrated.

Mary Burke, state commerce secretary and president of the Boys and Girls Club’s board of directors, said the Allied Family Center represents “the beginning of a new era for the Allied Drive neighborhood” and “the future of the kids there.”

Others, including Alice Howard, president of the Allied Drive Neighborhood Association, see it as “a first step” in providing families with needed services and support.

“It’s a start,” Howard said, adding that collaboration with other community organizations is still needed to bring programs such as parenting classes and job-training to neighborhood residents.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said of the opening of the center, which straddles the city’s border with Fitchburg. “It comes at the start of the summer and a crucial time for Allied Drive.”

Changing fortunes
Tensions stemming from increasing financial hardships of neighborhood residents were cited as underlying factors in two incidents in April, when bystanders fought with officers responding to what began as family arguments, prompting police and community leaders to say the area was slipping further into decline.

“Summer is a challenging time,” Burke said. “You have to have a safe, productive place where kids can go.”

But at the same time, Cieslewicz said, “there’s a number of things that are just starting or coming to fruition on Allied Drive,” and the center’s opening “may be the first tangible sign” that the positive change is on the horizon.

“I think it’s going to improve the quality of life on Allied Drive,” Cieslewicz said. “It has the potential to turn around the lives of many young people in the neighborhood.”

Such change won’t happen overnight. “It will be gradual,” Burke said. “Five years from now, it will be an entirely different neighborhood.”

Since plans for the new Boys and Girls Club were unveiled two years ago, she said, several projects designed to provide affordable housing in the Allied Drive neighborhood have been announced, including the city of Madison’s recent purchase of nine apartment buildings with 129 apartments, which Cieslewicz wants to demolish and redevelop.

In addition, Cieslewicz said, developer Gary Gorman’s Avalon Village will be opening soon on the former Supersaver site off Verona Road with 104 apartments, 70 percent of them for low-income families. And in the Fitchburg portion of the neighborhood, Tom Ellifson is building 31 single-family homes just south of the new center, which received funding from both cities and Dane County, in addition to private donations.

Neighborhood catalyst
The Boys and Girls Club is nearing completion of a $6.9 million capital campaign, which includes five years of operating expenses.

“People are looking to us to be a real catalyst for change in the neighborhood,” said Marcia Hendrickson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. “This is where we really need to be.”

“There’s reasons that it’s challenging in Allied Drive and it experiences the amount of crime and poverty and joblessness,” Burke said. “(The neighborhood) doesn’t have the resources to give people the tools to change their lives.”

That’s something Burke and Hendrickson hope the Allied Family Center will help to change with its programs for middle school and high school students, as well as for adults.

Smith-Carson, a 2005 graduate of Madison’s West High School who is now studying nursing at Madison Area Technical College, said she received the encouragement and support to do something positive with her life from the programs she attended at the Boys and Girls Club’s Taft Street branch, which opened in 1999 on the city’s South Side.

Three years ago, when the Boys and Girls Club opened a second site in a remodeled apartment building owned by the city of Madison just across from its new Allied Family Center, Smith-Carson became a junior staff member there. Now a sports and recreation assistant, Smith-Carson sees herself as a role model for what youths in Allied Drive and throughout Dane County can achieve with the academic and life skills support the Boys and Girls Club provides.

With the opening of the 22,000-square-foot center — about quadruple the space of the former Allied Drive center — the number of youths that Smith-Carson and its 22 other staff members can serve will grow from between 30 to 40 to as many as 250 a day.

Fitchburg Mayor Tom Clauder said he believes word of mouth about what the facility offers — including a gymnasium –will draw youths from throughout Dane County.

The center also will feature a large game area and a teen room with a jukebox and large-screen TV, both donations. It also has a lab with 26 computers, along with rooms for its art, music and health, life skills and financial education programs.

In addition, the center will house a neighborhood food pantry, which organizer Mike Bodden said served 188 families last month.

Safe place for youths
Hendrickson said the center will bring youths together from different areas who normally would not interact with one another.

“Every child at some point in their life is vulnerable to negative influences,” Hendrickson said, adding that all children need positive influences and role models and alternatives to “hanging out” that lessen the likelihood of them becoming involved in crime or other negative behaviors.

“There’s a lot of challenges that children are facing,” she said, “whether it’s violence in the community or the home or in the media,” or becoming involved with drugs and alcohol.

“We are giving children opportunities and hope and the belief they can succeed,” Hendrickson said, adding the center also provides support for parents who want a better life for their families. “If parents have the confidence and assistance, they are going to be more successful.”

“We have parents who may be working two or three jobs and are still the working poor,” said Tracey Pederson, development director for the Boys and Girls Club.

The Allied Family Center will give those parents the comfort of knowing their children have a place to go, Pederson said, adding, “We treat them like we would our own family.”

The Boys and Girls Club focuses on middle and high school students, ages 7-18, providing programs during non-school hours in a safe place with caring people and fun activities, Hendrickson said.

“We stress a youth development strategy,” she said, with programs designed to instill a sense of competence, usefulness, belonging and power.

The center also will offer programs for adults, including high-school equivalency classes in conjunction with MATC, English language instruction in cooperation with UW-Extension and job training through the Urban League of Greater Madison.

In addition to giving youth and adults tools to improve their lives, Burke said, the new facility will serve as a much-needed community center, where residents can gather for potlucks and other activities. It also provides a place for other organizations to offer services to assist neighborhood residents.

The facility has been designed with separate wings for youth and adult activities, with the safety of program participants and staff a priority, Hendrickson said.

Metal detectors flanking the entrance to the center have become a common practice at Boys and Girls Clubs in cities such as Milwaukee and Chicago, as well as in small communities, said Hendrickson, who believes the security measures will help “instill that feeling of ownership” among community members.

“This is a facility that has been designed for them to benefit from,” she said. “People have the right to feel safe.”

On Monday, the city of Madison will assign an additional police officer to the neighborhood, for a total of three, Cieslewicz said, adding, “I don’t think people should be concerned about their safety.”