Citizens step up as budget cuts kill community centers

Tate Gallery graffiti 1

Image by suvodeb via Flickr

Three teenagers were shot in the last 10 days in Albany Park. While the state slashes funding for various programs, including youth services, the local community is left to pick up the pieces.  Our Lady of Mercy Church, The Albany Park Neighborhood Council and  life-long resident Eric Criniere are leading the pack.

Eric Criniere used to own the local skateboard shop Armory Chicago with his friend Rico Sepaden, and his store quickly became the default hang-out for the local youth. As the crowd of children grew, Criniere and Sepaden began teaching the local youth the art of DJing, skateboarding, graffiti art and breakdancing- the essential skills of a “b- boy”. Merchandise was pushed to the side, and classes spilled out onto the street and even to outside of Criniere’s home. As the throng of children grew larger,  it hit Criniere that his neighborhood was missing a functioning community center. As time went on, Criniere found himself disenchanted with “the mission of selling things” and he began to hate that he was “chasing a profit margin”. When Rico Sepaden decided to move back to California, Criniere closed down his shop in order to concentrate full time on creating his own non-profit community center “A Champion’s Mind”.  Criniere says “champions aren’t born, champions are built”, and it’s his mission to provide discipline through the arts.

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So far, the going has been tough. Criniere tried volunteering at the local community centers but was rejected flat out. He suspects it may have something to do with his appearance (b-boy style), and relates a similar story when he tried going there as a kid:

When I was a little kid, they also denied us like that. Maybe the type of kids we were, the way we looked, not really clean, the way we talk and act, it probably didn’t come out right. I totally understand from their viewpoint why they denied us-

Not to be deterred, Criniere applied for state funding, only to find out that since he’s not affiliated with an organization he can’t get any financial support. He’s had a couple of fund-raisers selling graffiti-inspired artwork, but has only raised a couple thousand dollars. Criniere’s “A Champion’s Mind” crew includes “Lalo”, “the best mural artist in the city” as well as 5 other local artists. A Champion’s Mind’s first goal was to have a mural painted in Albany Park, and last month, through the efforts of Our Lady of Mercy and the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, the mural (by “Lalo”) was unveiled in front of the press. Criniere is satisfied with the mural, even if he wasn’t directly involved.

Father Tito, of Our Lady of Mercy is also dismayed by the limited funding for youth programs in the neighborhood. The idea for the mural came from staring at the brick wall by the church: “there’s this big wall out there, let’s paint on it, let’s get them [local youth] to do something positive” says Father Tito. Part of the mural-making process was to get the kids to “think about their lives in the neighborhood, and how we get along together, live together” explains Father Tito. All in all, “it was good experience and the children enjoyed it” adds Father Tito.

With the mural complete, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council has no other projects or programs to offer youth. Juan Cruz, the Youth Development Coordinator explained that the APNH is focusing on raising awareness and funding. Yesterday, the APNC attended the Illinois Youth Town Hall Forum in a push for more investment in order to open more youth centers in the city, and for the creation of 20,000 jobs for youth by 2010. The question on everyone’s lips at the forum was “where is the investment in Chicago’s future?” Approximately 400 students attended the Town Hall meeting, but Cruz was disappointed by the lack of attendance from political figures, despite their assurances to attend.

I didn’t believe Criniere’s treatment at the Albany Park Community Center, so I spent months trying to get someone on the phone. My calls went unanswered and the one time I was able to talk to someone and set up an interview, I was told to go away when I arrived at the office. It wasn’t until last Friday, when I walked into the Albany Park Community Center on a whim and talked with Michelle Fleming, the volunteer coordinator, that I was able to get some answers. The APCC on Foster and Kimball is nothing like the other centers (Criniere jokes they are “ghost centers”), and the time I was there, I witnessed children in school, food for the homeless being loaded into a van, and adults in ESL and GED classes. I was blown away by how bustling this center was compared to the other two, and Michelle Fleming was more than helpful, a complete 180 from my prior treatment. (For the life of me, I can’t understand why someone would refer anyone to the executive offices instead of this Kimball and Foster center).  Flemming explained that because of budget issues, one of the centers was closed down temporarily and some staff members had to be laid off. Flemming’s center is especially worried about funding for next year.

Criniere is going to try volunteering again at the Albany Park Community Center, at the Kimball and Foster location.   Chicago currently ranks first in youth homicide, and with funding for after school programs plummeting at a time when youth violence is rising, it’s now more important than ever to establish a connection with these teens.

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