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Get those kids off the street: A history of youth centers in West Duluth

RELATED CONTENT: Community center faces challenges in Lincoln Park

By JORDAN HANSON
DCN Correspondent

West Duluth kids are getting into table tennis in a big way, and they are good at it – really good. The Valley Youth Center (VYC) on Central Avenue is encouraging their pingpong pursuit, from teaching kids how to play, to sponsoring and chaperoning trips to national competitions all across the country.

“We have one of the best table tennis programs in the nation right now,? said Angelo Simone, the VYC’s program director. “I bring whatever skill I have to the youth center, and these kids bring it to the next level.?

The VYC table tennis program supports its members by providing trips to national tournaments. One stipulation of this support, however, is that every traveler must have good grades to be able to go.

Simone gave the example of a former VYC table tennis participant who won a gold medal at the age of 8. Poor grades, however, threatened to keep him from pursuing various tournaments. According to Simone, this was enough to motivate the participant to improve his grades all throughout school and ultimately help him to graduate.

“I've seen a great increase in the grades of many kids who might have dropped out at age 16,? said Simone. “Some of these kids would never see anywhere past the Oneota Street Bridge. This gives them a chance to do things they would never have the opportunity to do, and that's what we're all about.?

Besides table tennis, the VYC also has an outdoor and indoor basketball court, a playground, a small track and field, a game room, pool tables, a snack room, a computer lab and a workspace.

For years, communities have used youth programs to combat the dangers of the outside world. The underlying intent is that if a child is kept occupied, he or she will be less susceptible to alcohol consumption, drug abuse, gang activity and violence.

The VYC has been operating under this ideal for 39 years. Because of the nature of today's society, many families consist of both parents having to work full time. This creates a need for programs like the VYC to step up to the plate and fill in for the parents.

Sarah Abbett, a 16-year-old from West Duluth, described the Valley Youth Center as the center of her community. She said that she is usually at the VYC every day, and most of her friends are too.

“This is where I feel at home,? Abbet said. “I really trust the people at the youth center.?

Simone, who has been working at the VYC for 25 years, said he wants to create a place where those kids will want to go which will also provide them with a safe environment. He has been a part of the VYC since age 7. He is now 45 years old.

“I think it just gives kids a comfortable feeling,? said Simone. “We've got enough vandalism, drugs, and high school dropouts out there. I see it as an outlet.?

Simone said the center has done a lot for the community, and the community has begun to really take notice. He pointed out that the VYC faced criticism when it moved into the Laura MacArthur West Elementary School building on Central Avenue.

The community seems to have changed its collective mind, though, as Simone was awarded this year's “West Duluth Hero Award? from the Duluth Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

poem.JPG
This poem, "The Center," hangs at the YVC. It was written by Archie Horton Sr., formerly a youth boxing instructor at the YVC.

History of youth centers in West Duluth

The Valley Youth Center was started in 1969 as an affiliate of The Welch Center, Inc., according to their website. The United Way adopted the Welch Center in1981. In 1984, the Valley Youth Center moved to their current location.

Since becoming funded by the United Way, they have grown from 138 participants with an average of 38 per day to over 1,000 participants with an average of 150 participants per day.

Some of the growth of youth support in West Duluth can be attributed to an increase in government spending. Grant money from charitable pull-tabs has provided some money to youth groups in Duluth. According to a December 9, 2001, article in the Duluth News Tribune, the quarterly grant for youth programs in the city of Duluth at that time was $22,314 – $2,500 of which went directly to the Valley Youth Center for a year-round table tennis program.

The VYC has done their part in trying to protect the children of West Duluth from the dangers of the streets. Teens that are already at risk, however, needed extra support.

That’s why in 2003 a grant of $91,000 provided the funding for a branch of Duluth's Life House to be created in the Lincoln Park area of West Duluth, according the Duluth News Tribune. The facility was designed specifically to provide at-risk teenage girls a safe haven with the hopes of turning their lives around. Girls who are challenged with homelessness, drug or alcohol addictions, and teen pregnancy are all welcomed in by the house.

In the article, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund at the time, Warren Hanson, said, “Duluth, like other communities in Greater Minnesota, has a severe shortage of crisis housing for at-risk youth.? It also said that there were only 16 beds available, and an estimated 400 applications are sent in for this kind of housing every year.

“West Duluth in general has a negative connotation,? said Ellari Mackey, who grew up in Denfeld. “But the youth are a major issue now. Things are starting to change.?

The consensus in the community seems to be that youth programs are vital to the interests of the neighborhood. Mike Jaros, Minnesota State Representative for West Duluth and all of district 7B, wholeheartedly agrees.

“More and more money should go into it,? said Jaros. “We used to fund a lot of youth programs.?

As many households across America can empathize with, lack of money has caused the government to cut back spending. Jaros tracked the state’s financial deficit to the turn of the millennium. When former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura took office in 1999, the state had a budget surplus. Minnesota government officials then instituted a large tax refund. According to Jaros, this refund, combined with a contemporaneous decision to lower taxes, plummeted Minnesota into a huge deficit by the year 2003.

This shortage of funds hurt counties, cities, school districts and many programs around the state, leaving little money leftover for youth programs. Jaros believes that youth programs are essential for any community and said he is pushing for more support.

“I wish we had more money to fund these programs,? said Jaros. “Money can’t solve everything, but it is a necessary evil.?

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Community center faces challenges in Lincoln Park By ALEXANDER RISSE, DCN Correspondent

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nice article