HARTFORD —City police Officer Steve Kessler, speaking to a community group recently, said that gang violence was a problem around the brand-new, $10.9 million, Wilson-Gray YMCA building in the city's North End.
Not only that, but much of the gang activity involved elementary-school children.
In other circumstances, that would be troubling news. But it was no surprise to the Y's leadership, employees and longtime residents.
"We expressed to them before they moved in that it would be problem, so they were aware of it," said Charles Barrow, who grew up in the neighborhood and is president of the Clay Hill Improvement Association, the community group Kessler spoke to.
Reports of gang activity didn't stop the Y's plans. In fact, one of the ideas behind moving the Y's operations from the XL Center downtown to a part of the city that has long been troubled by poverty and crime was that the organization would have a greater impact on the lives of the families who live there.
The Wilson-Gray Youth and Family Center, a 43,000-square-foot facility on Albany Avenue, opened in September and features a $100,000 climbing wall, basketball court, gymnasium, exercise room, teen center and pre-teen center. Officials say hundreds of young people use the facility daily — after school only during the week — and the numbers swell more on weekends.
"Now that the Y is here [young people] have an alternative," said Andrea Allard, executive director of the center. "They are tapping into positive experiences."
But that doesn't mean the center hasn't run into problems. Confrontations between rival gangs have occurred, resulting in the expulsion of rule-breakers from the center. Several "ambassadors," like Carl Hardrick, are on duty to keep the peace, monitor the pulse of the center and try to mentor youths who are at risk of becoming involved in gangs.
"This area was crime-infested," said Hardrick, a longtime North End activist and social worker. "Just because the Y was dropped in, it didn't become crime-free."
Hardrick said the Y already has persuaded some children to resist the lure of neighborhood gangs, such as one called " Coke Wave." He expects that trend to grow as the children are exposed to positive influences and role models.
"Give us a year to work with Coke Waves and they won't exist," Hardrick said, adding that he hopes to extend his and the Y's reach into the neighborhood to create a "violence-free zone." But he added that nothing would change if the Y wasn't delivering activities young people want.
Without the Y's offerings, he said, "they'd be in the street."
Barrow agrees with Hardrick's assessment and said the Y is on the right track. He said his community group is collaborating and also launching a plan to head off gang activity that has started at the city's DeLucco Park, which is adjacent to the center.
"We're going to put that to rest, as well," he said. "We're all doing our part."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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