Trying to keep kids in Austin out of prison

By Alicja Pozywio | Staff writer
Sunday, April 24, 2011

Shooting baskets, doing homework, taking classes and playing pool, Ping-Pong and video games are among the activities offered to at-risk youth from the Austin neighborhood at the Peace Corner, 5022 W. Madison.

Now they can do it in a new $1.6 million facility April 9. The 75,000-square-foot building, still smelling of paint and new construction, has a basketball court, offices, a lounge area, a computer lab and a large dividable classroom. The project was funded through private donations.

“My religious order gave $400,000, $200,000 came from the bank, and the land was given to us by the city for $1. All together we raised $1.4 million and we are still looking for $200,000 to finish the building,” said Comboni Missionary Father Maurizio Binaghi, the founder and executive director of The Peace Corner.

Ten years ago the area of The Peace Corner didn’t have anything to do with any kind of peace.

“I was working at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and saw young men cycle in and out of jail,” said Binaghi. His religious order is dedicated to going to places where no one else would go, and Binaghi wanted to get to know the young men who, as he said “were doing all kinds of things on the street.”

“I stood at the corner of Cicero and Lake and saw that the problem was not in prison, but outside of it. I asked them, ‘What would you like to do?’ They said, ‘We want to have a place where we don’t have to be tough,’” said Binaghi.

All he had was $1,500. It was enough to rent a place in October 2001 at Cicero and Lake. “It was in very bad condition with rats and mold,” said Binaghi. His new friends from the street helped fix it, and the drop-in center opened its doors in January 2002 with one used pool table, one used Ping- Pong table and five chairs.

“These young people were hungry for a peaceful place where they didn’t need to watch their backs,” said Binaghi.

The drop-in center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for general activities and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for people attending classes. It serves between 60 and 70 each day and up to 90 people each day in the winter, offering young people a place of hope and safety in an otherwise unsafe neighborhood.

Students are required to finish their homework before playing in the gym. All but two of the staff members have served time in jail.

There are a lot of good things happening at the Peace Corner.

“I do my homework here. There are a whole bunch of people coming from my school,” said Kendale Brice, a freshman at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School. “Sometimes we play basketball.”

Brice was to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, making him the only Catholic in his family.

Other local people are finding help and friends in support groups.

“We have classes on anger management and on team work. We organize field trips to big companies to introduce them to the working class life. The girls are producing a play which they wrote by themselves,” said Binaghi.

There are men who are already in their own landscaping businesses. The organization runs job placement programs.

“We partnered with a nonprofit housing development agency. Through one of them we manage 14 different buildings. There is only one requirement to get a job in our place — we only hire people who have been to prison, who have a criminal background,” Binaghi said.

The key to the success at the Peace Corner is partnership and volunteers. The center works with DePaul, Dominican and Loyola universities, whose students offer GED courses and tutoring programs, teach computer skills or give job training.

On an average day there are members affiliated with five different gangs at the Peace Corner, but there has not been a fight.

There is a large black and green cross hung on the wall, but the organization doesn’t impose any religion. In the past it had a Bible study, and now participants pray before meetings and take teenagers on retreats, where everybody goes to Mass.

“They ask religious questions privately. They know Bishop [John] Manz and some priests who visit us. They watch us, then they become curious and ask questions,” Binaghi said.