Central Hillside youth center lives on with new management – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — When The Hills Youth and Family Services abruptly closed its doors last summer after 112 years of serving the community, some of its programs faced an uncertain future.

This included neighborhood youth services, a staple of the Central Hillside neighborhood for the past three decades. The drop-in center provides after-school and summer tutoring, meals, and recreational opportunities for K-12 youth.

“A lot of the parents we have now were kids here themselves,” said Aaron Gelineau, who has worked with the program for more than 25 years. “It’s like being the grandfather to a bunch of kids. It says a lot about building relationships and the level of trust we have in this community.”

Determined to keep the lights on for the approximately 400 children who access the center each year, plans were quickly drawn up for another long-time provider, Life House, to temporarily take over services for young people in the neighborhood in July. last.

But now leaders are looking to the future. The program was recently absorbed into a new parent organization, the Family Freedom Center, which aims to not only preserve the center, but expand its offerings for generations to come.

“Traditionally, NYS has been more of a drop-in center and an after-school program,” executive director Jacob Bell said. “And while that will continue to be the case, at the Family Freedom Center we are really focused on more educational programs, recreational programs, business skills, access to technology, entrepreneurial development. These are all programs that we will be adding to our youth service offerings.”

Like a “family” for program participants

Located at the Washington Center, Neighborhood Youth Services was established in 1992 by community leaders in conjunction with Duluth Police Chief Scott Lyons and St. Louis County Juvenile Court Judge Gerald Martin. Responding to concerns about crime in the area, the goal was to create a place that would provide a sense of belonging, strengthen families and help keep local youth on track.

Leaders describe the program – and its endurance during a recent tumultuous period – as a success story and an example of the community coming together for the greater good.

Gelineau said the program has grown steadily over the years. What started as a small recreation center-based program has grown into a larger community program that includes events like the annual Halloween Trunk or Treat and Back-to-School Unit in our community at Bayfront. Festival Park, where 1,500 backpacks and school supplies were donated this year.

Tori Thrash, a Neighborhood Youth Services volunteer, serves food at a community barbecue hosted by the Family Freedom Center on Aug. 30.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

The program has evolved from a hot plate to a full kitchen which ensures that the children do not miss meals. Recreational opportunities have expanded to include various field trips, fishing with police officers, kayaking and paddleboarding. Graduation rates have also increased each year, Gelineau said.

“We are reaping the rewards,” he said. “We have so many young children coming in who are struggling in school – and some who are also excelling – but it’s just being there for them and their families and filling those gaps.”

Ashley Mattson’s three boys have been regular visitors to Neighborhood Youth Services for about eight years. She said she was happy to see the program survive.

“It’s a great place for them,” Mattson said. “It’s not like you just drop your kids off. It’s family. You trust all the instructors and the kids love the instructors. They all have something special to teach the kids.”

The sudden closure of The Hills, the program’s founding organization, caught many off guard. The provider – perhaps best known for its residential treatment services at the facility formerly known as Woodland Hills – ended up filing for bankruptcy, citing more than $28 million in debt.

A scramble to maintain the organization’s services in Duluth led Northwood Children’s Services to take over some of the mental health treatment services, while Life House stepped in to operate services for neighborhood youth.

Life House provides similar services to a downtown drop-in centre, although it is aimed at homeless and street youth aged 14-24. Executive director Jordon Eunison-Chisti said the nonprofit’s board and staff were up to the challenge.

“We recognized that this was potentially a way to help prevent future young people from coming through our door,” he said. “We didn’t want to contribute to other struggles in our youth community, especially in the Hillside area, so it was a lot of work, but we’re really proud that the staff at Life House have really stepped up to s ensuring that the program was stabilized for whoever was going to come in and move it forward.”

But Eunison-Chisti said it was never seriously considered for Life House to maintain the program long-term, citing differences in the age brackets and requirements of the two programs. So a consultancy firm, Northspan Group, was brought in to help find a new home for neighborhood youth services.

Organization proud to be black-led

Bell said the program is a natural fit for the Family Freedom Center, which was founded by her late father, Xavier Bell, as one of the few black-run nonprofits in the region.

Family Freedom Center welcome sign.
A new Family Freedom Center sign welcomes visitors to neighborhood youth services at the Washington Center on August 30. The Family Freedom Center assumed leadership of the program on August 1.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

“We are a staunchly black organization,” he said. “It means we don’t hide who we are. We’re proud of who we are, and we’re proud of what we do and where we come from.”

The Central Hillside and surrounding areas have a significantly higher percentage of African American and Native American families compared to the city as a whole. And, according to Northspan’s analysis, one-third of households earn below the poverty line; two-thirds rent rather than own their homes; and there are significant disparities in access to education, health and transport.

Bell said the Family Freedom Center structures its programming around the specific needs of the black and brown community, striving to serve all residents, regardless of race.

“When (kids) see people being comfortable in their own skin, and being exactly who they are and who they’re meant to be, I think it has a contagious effect, where other people start feeling comfortable in their own skin,” he said.

Mattson agreed, saying the center was both a convenient place for her boys while she worked and that it provided educational and cultural benefits.

“It’s probably one of the most diverse places here,” she said. “You would think a school would be, but this place is much more diverse. It’s interesting to have different cultures and we can all relate to each other and have safe, open-minded conversations.”

As the program evolves, “we are going to be us”

Stephen Sinclair started as the program’s youth coordinator in March. He said a few local organizations had kicked off services for youth in the neighborhood, but staff were particularly impressed with the initiative taken by the Family Freedom Center.

A woman talking with a man.
Acting Duluth Police Chief Laura Marquardt, left, talks to Family Freedom Center Executive Director Jacob Bell at their community barbecue Aug. 30.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

“I think their main focus was that they just wanted to see what we wanted and what we were looking for in an organization because they knew they wanted to partner with us,” Sinclair said. “But they weren’t trying to use our program for their own purposes. They just wanted to make sure we had the best home we could find.”

After assuming leadership on August 1, the Family Freedom Center began moving its administrative offices from Lincoln Park to the Washington Center, cementing its dedication to the program.

Neighborhood youth services sign.
The Neighborhood Youth Services sign located at the Washington Center in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

Neighborhood Youth Services operates with a 2022 budget of just over $250,000, which includes salaries for the equivalent of 5 ½ full-time employees. It receives funding from the Ordean, Northland and Lloyd K. Johnson foundations; leader of Lakes United Way; Minnesota Office of Justice Programs; Duluth Parks and Recreation; and Duluth Community Development Block Grant.

Bell said there are still a few details to iron out about the program’s offerings — and even its name. Most children simply call it “The Center”.

“The reality of what we’re doing here is finding our own identity as a community,” he said. “We are discovering who we are and we can be whatever we want to be. The history here, the roots we have and the track record that goes all the way back to The Hills is something we are all very proud of.

“But we want to have conversations with members of our organization and the children we serve and families and staff and ask, ‘Who do we want to be? What do we want to be? and then create on that basis. In the end, we will be ourselves.

Comments are closed.