WEST SIDE — Community leaders opened a new Boys & Girls Club on the West Side, located within the city’s controversial police training campus.
Local officials hosted a ribbon cutting at the Rusu-McCartin Boys & Girls Club, 4411 W. Chicago Ave., on Friday. Elementary and high school-aged kids have been attending programs at the $15 million facility throughout the summer.
For $20 each school year, kids will be able to visit the center for after-school care, homework help and educational extracurriculars, including fine arts lessons, athletics and STEM classes, club director Tevin Haynes said.
The three-story 27,000-square-foot building encompasses an NBA-sized basketball court, commercial teaching kitchen, recording studio, gaming computers, hangout spaces and a rooftop garden, according to a press release.
“The excitement from kids has been vibrant in this place,” Haynes said. “The kids have been excited about the arts and STEM programs, and they’ve really been looking forward to using the recording studio.”
The Rusu-McCartin Boys & Girls Club had previously faced criticism from activists because it’s located in the city’s $128 million first responder training campus at 4301 W. Chicago Ave., which opened in January.
In addition to classrooms and administrative offices, the training campus includes a $33 million “tactical scenario village” with a fake city block, a six-story burn tower, a car crash rescue area and other settings and props to simulate real-life emergencies.
Activists fought to block the police training academy since City Council approved plans for it in 2019, saying they’d rather see money go toward housing, social services and other resources to help residents.
More than 500 people signed a petition in June 2021 asking for the Boys & Girls Club to choose a different West Side location for the project. Organizers with #NoCopAcademy said, “Black and Brown youth are being used as props” in a “PR strategy to ease those rising tensions between the general public and police.”
Organizers with #NoCopAcademy didn’t respond to requests for comment about the center opening.
Community-focused. Reader-funded. Journalist-run.
Support Chicago’s neighborhood news. Support Block Club today.
Founded in 1902, Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago provides after-school and summer programming for thousands of young people at 24 locations throughout the city.
Local officials, including Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), defended the center. Mitts said neighborhood kids have needed a resource like this for a long time, and she’s grateful they’ll have a safe space to grow and learn.
“Our children need to be able to have a place where they can interact with each other, where they can learn how to respect each other, where they can explore each other,” Mitts said. “One of the most wonderful things we can do in our community is to give back to our children, and this isn’t something we need to be fighting over.”
Mitts said the club’s proximity to first responders will help promote “unity” within the community and allow kids to learn about law enforcement in a safe environment.
“Children will be able to see and know what law enforcement is all about,” Mitts said. “They can’t be what they can’t see, so why not put some officers where the kids can see them?”
First responders sometimes stop by the club to lead activities with the kids and get to know them personally, Haynes said. They’ve played hide-and-seek together, taken neighborhood walks together and collaborated on a photo display of their favorite places in the community, Haynes said.
“We’re bridging a gap here within the community, and it’s been productive and almost mind-blowing to see the response from our kids when the first responders do come in and volunteer,” said Haynes, who grew up in Austin and has been an educator for more than a decade.
The club’s facilities were designed based on feedback from West Side teens, who largely said they wanted classes where they could develop their interests and hangout areas to spend time with friends, Haynes said.
Haynes said he noticed the teens especially hoped to “see themselves represented in the building.”
“I’m most excited about the words we chose to go at the front and back of the building that say, ‘Be a voice, not an echo,’” said Jametria T., a 15-year-old youth council member. “People will walk in and they’re really gonna feel that. I remember when we were just writing down all our ideas on sticky notes, and now it’s all really come to life.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: