Peace Corner offers safe haven for at-risk youth

By Joyce Duriga
Sunday, July 24, 2016

Peace Corner offers safe haven for at-risk youth

Children shoot baskets on the regulation-size basketball court at the Peace Corner Youth Center in the Austin neighborhood on the Westside of Chicago on June 23. The center provides a safe haven from gang violence and drug activity in the neighborhood. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Ryhanna Briscoe, 10, uses a computer in the Peace Corner's lab. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Two boys play a friendly game of basketball at the Peace Corner on June 27. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Anthony Mabry talks at the Peace Corner. Now on staff, Mabry started coming to the center at age 13. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

Chicago’s Austin neighborhood remains one of the city’s highestcrime areas. But for more than 10 years, the Peace Corner drop-in center and after-school program has offered youth a place where gang turf doesn’t matter and they are free of the drug culture on their streets.

“Some kids have it better than others but just being in the area alone is risky,” said Anthony Mabry, a staff member at Catholic Charities’ Peace Corner who grew up in the West Side community. Mabry started coming to the Peace Corner when he was 13. Later he transitioned into being a volunteer and then staff member.

“It kept me out of a lot of trouble. I’m just thankful this place was there,” said Mabry, 26, who just graduated from De- Paul University. He is the first in his family to attend college and probably wouldn’t have gone without the support of the staff at the Peace Corner.

He found out about the program by tagging along with some other young people in the neighborhood who were headed there.

“I came in and never stopped coming,” he said.

In 2002 Comboni Missionary Father Maurizio Binaghi started the Peace Corner as a drop-in center and after-school program. It quickly grew into a center where young people could go to not just play pool and ping pong, but to find tutoring, mentoring, GED classes and job placement services. Binaghi led the Peace Corner for eight years before leaving in 2009 to do missionary work in Uganda. Catholic Charities recently assumed operation of the center.

The Peace Corner, located at 5022 W. Madison St., offers programs year round to youth aged 10 to 18. There is a computer lab where students can work on their homework or use educational enrichment software along with a fully equipped classroom and a regulation-size basketball court.

The basketball court is the carrot the center offers to kids to get them through the door, said executive director Seth El-Jamal. The youth respect the privilege of playing on the court and they all helped to keep it clean at the end of each day. While the court is the enticement, the center’s focus is always on education and personal development.

El-Jamal grew up in a rough neighborhood downstate. When Chicago housing projects like Cabrini Green closed, many of the gangs moved downstate or into the suburbs of Chicago. Because he can relate to the dangerous realities of living in Austin, he started peace circles in the center earlier this year.

Peace circles are a form of restorative justice where victims and perpetrators come together in a circle with mediators and work out their conflicts without violence and in constructive ways.

“We work with kids who are dealing with post-traumatic stress situations. In my history, the hardest case I’ve ever worked with was a young man who, on a weekend, went home, was playing with his 2-year-old cousin, found his uncle's gun and shot and killed his cousin,” El-Jamal said. “This kid has got to come back ... when he walks in that door this is the only place that he’s going to be treated the same as when he was here before that happened. This is his safe place.”

What the youth learn in the peace circles stays with them when they leave Peace Corner, Mabry said.

“It’s really needed because outside it’s life or death.”

In the last eight months, El-Jamal said, six kids in the community have been shot within a three-mile radius of the Peace Corner. In March attendance dropped because violence in the community spiked and parents didn’t want their kids out in the afternoon. While they are safe inside the Peace Corner, getting to and from the center can be dangerous.

Even gang members are safe inside. Since its beginning, the Peace Corner has maintained a strict rule that what goes on out in the streets stays there when the youth walk in. The gangs respect that, Mabry said, and there can be members of various gangs in the center at the same time with no issue.

“It’s really a safe haven for the community. We don’t worry about anything when we’re in here,” Mabry said. “Even more than that it’s some place where you can get educated.”

To learn more about the Peace Corner, visit


  • catholic charities
  • restorative justice
  • non-violence
  • peace corner
  • austin

Related Articles