The Peace Corner Youth Center on Chicago's West Side offers youth a safe and recreational space after school and during the summer. Just before a violent weekend of shootings across the city left eight people dead and more than 40 wounded, Progress Illinois attended the non-profit's open house to learn more about its violence-prevention programs.
Just before a violent weekend of shootings across the city left eight people dead and more than 40 wounded, Chicago residents came together to learn about the various violence-prevention programs at The Peace Corner Youth Center in the Austin neighborhood.
The non-profit, which has been coined an oasis on the West Side, offers youth a safe and recreational space after school and during the summer. At The Peace Corner, young people can escape from the gangs and drugs that plague their community, according to the porgram's leaders.
“Everywhere you go in the neighborhood, you always have to put on like a tough role, or you don’t feel like you’re in a safe environment,” said Sebastian Longstreet, 22, the youth supervisor and outreach program director at The Peace Corner. “When you walk through The Peace Corner’s doors, you’re in a safe haven ... Everyone in here is treated like family.”
Founded in 2002 by Father Maurizio Binaghi, The Peace Corner has a computer lab and an indoor gym with a basketball court. Youth can participate in after-school and summer programs, seek academic tutoring, take an improv comedy class or just hang out and play some table tennis.
But above all else, The Peace Corner’s focus is on violence prevention.
Longstreet, who was born and raised in Austin, said The Peace Corner was instrumental in putting his life back on track.
At the age of 12, Longstreet’s father was incarcerated and sentenced to life in prison.
“He was the sole financial provider for the household, and things got real, real rough,” Longstreet explained at the center’s open house Friday.
Wanting to help pay the bills but unable to find at job at his age, Longstreet said the streets accepted him. He began selling drugs and committing other crimes in order to provide for his family, he said.
But his lifestyle caught up with him at the age of 17 when he was arrested on a drug-related charge. The teen served two years in the Stateville Correctional Center and was released back into the community in 2010.
“After I was released from prison, I wanted to change my life around,” Longstreet said. “I realized jail wasn’t a very nice place, and I started looking for jobs and looking for help, and no one wanted to help me.”
Instead of turning to his old ways, Longstreet went to The Peace Corner and enrolled in the center’s job training program involving construction and demolition. After completing the program, Longstreet stayed at the center and helped younger kids with their homework and other activities.
Longstreet was eventually hired on as The Peace Corner’s youth supervisor and outreach program director. He supervises basketball and baseball games, helps kids with math and writing, and even teaches them how to do their own laundry.
On top of his job duties, Longstreet is also a freshman at Dominican University majoring in computer science. He has a 3.9 GPA.
“The best part about working (at the Peace Corner) is giving back to the community,” he explained.
Here’s more from Longstreet about his involvement in The Peace Corner:
State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), whose 11th district includes parts of the city’s North Side, attended Friday’s open house.
“No matter where you live in the city, we’re all one community,” Williams said. “No matter what the issues are in your particular block, you have to be concerned about what’s going on a mile away.”
She called The Peace Corner a welcoming and forgiving space, which sets it apart from other community organizations.
“I think that’s why it’s really earned the respect of the community and [has] been as successful as it is in turning lives around,” she said.
State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), who represents Austin’s 8th district, said the youth center is one of the only “positive” buildings that have popped up in the community in years.
Spaces like The Peace Corner that serve youth and their families are important for Austin, especially since the neighborhood’s YMCA center shut down last year, Ford explained. A number of Austin’s schools are also being closed or consolidated at the end of this month as part of the Chicago Public Schools’ recent round of school actions.
There is a healthy environment at The Peace Corner, Ford added.
“Not only is it healthy as far as education, it’s also physically healthy, especially in the neighborhood where obesity is high [and] you have all types of health problems,” he said. “Exercise is important, and this place provides that, and it’s structure.”
The Peace Corner’s founder Binaghi previously worked in a juvenile detention center where he encountered many young men who were arrested and later released into the Austin community.
“When I start[ed] asking them what would you like see happen for you? What could help? Everybody agrees that we need a place where we can go where nobody judges us,” Binaghi said.
Having little money at the time, Binaghi initially opened The Peace Corner in a “dump” of a storefront at Cicero Avenue and Lake Street in 2002. At its start, the center had a few chairs, a pool table and a Ping-Pong table, he explained.
After bringing in enough private donations, The Peace Corner was able to relocate to its current facility, 5022 W. Madison St., in 2010. The new building, which has a green roof and is one of the only LEED certified buildings in Austin, was built from the ground up on a vacant lot. In the future, The Peace Corner would also like to have a butterfly garden, said the center’s executive director Duane Wilson.
On a slow day, about 100 youth drop in to the facility, Wilson said. And about 40 parents use The Peace Corner’s computer lab and other amenities on a monthly basis, he added.
The non-profit will soon start registration for its youth summer program, which runs from June 24 through August 16. Summer programming includes enrichment activities, field trips and meals. During the summer months, the center will be reserved for registered youths from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., The Peace Corner will turn back into a drop-in center for the community to use.
The full summer program comes with a small $5 fee.
“We want parents to be able to feel that they’re able to contribute to their child’s safety and for their summer time,” Wilson explained. “If we offer it for free, youth may not be able to appreciate it as much.”
Youth can take part in conflict resolution classes as well as drug awareness and treatment programing during the summer. In addition, the center will offer gang awareness and mentoring classes.
The Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence will also be partnering with the Peace Corner for an activist institute.
Following the activist institute, “Youth can basically let the community know that guns will not define their lives, and violence is not part of their future,” Wilson said.
On Thursdays, comedians from The Second City will instruct improvisation classes, which build the youths’ confidence and presentation skills, Wilson said. After eight weeks, the students will likely compete against other youth centers in front of professional comics at a downtown competition.
The Peace Corner has also rolled out a new Andriod app that students can use to take academic quizzes on a variety of subjects. Parents and community members can also use the career development portion of the app to find out about job openings and fill out a resume from their mobile device or computer.
The non-profit wanted to create an app because young people in Austin are more likely to own a smartphone rather than a computer.
In an effort to bridge the community’s technological divide, The Peace Corner will soon launch a new program called “Impact 180,” where youth can win a laptop if they volunteer for 80 hours during a two-month period.
“We want to try and cover the digital side, because there’s not a lot of access to technology [in the community],” Wilson said. “The libraries may be closed. Internet service, many families are not able to afford it, or even just having a computer that’s up to date for today’s applications is a big challenge in this community.”
Also, the center will soon launch its “Peace Corner University” program, created in partnership with the University of Chicago.
Students can earn an associate degree of participation if they take a class in the STEM (science, technology, engineeering and math) subjects, as well anger management, health and a creative class, such as blogging or graphic design.
If students add on two more classes to their course load, they will earn a bachelor’s degree of participation from Peace Corner University.
The goal is to have the young people think about short-term and long-term goals while at the center, Wilson explained.
“At the same time, if they’re able to earn The Peace Corner version of a degree, eventually that may inspire them to go for the real thing once they graduate high school,” Wilson said.
Andre Hines, CEO of Circle Family Healthcare Network, a faith-based community health center that has operated on the West Side for 36 years, said she has witnessed the love and commitment that The Peace Corner staff has for young people.
“I think a lot of us, we’re afraid of our kids. We have written them off as bad and want to get in trouble, but I really believe that there is no bad child, “ she said.
Austin’s youth are simply looking for something organized to do and somebody who will spend time with them, Hines explained.
And Longstreet had some specific words for those young people in Austin.
“No matter what mistakes you make in life, you can correct them,” he said.