Austin youth center hosts open house

June 20, 2013
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Elected officials and community members gathered Friday to celebrate and learn more about The Peace Corner Youth Center.

Started in 2002 by the Rev. Maurizio Binaghi, the location at 5022 W. Madison St. opened three years ago as Austin’s first LEED-certified building.

But the center is more than an environmentally friendly building. It has been a safe haven for kids in the community since it first opened on Cicero Avenue and Lake Street, furnished sparsely with two chairs, a pool table and a ping-pong table.

Sebastian Longstreet, 22, is the youth supervisor and outreach program director for the organization.

Born and raised in Austin, Longstreet has been involved at Peace Corner Youth Center since 2010, but that’s not where his story begins.

His dad was arrested when he was 12, and he wanted to help support his family financially, he said.

“But no one wants to hire a 12-year-old. Things got rough, and the streets accepted me,” said Longstreet.

He was arrested on drug-related charges at the age of 17. He earned his high school diploma behind bars, but when he was released after serving two years, he couldn’t find a job.

“I wanted to change my life around. I wanted help, but no one wanted to help me,” he said.

That’s when he saw some of his friends doing construction work on Madison Street. They were working for the center and told him about Binaghi.

Longstreet joined the center’s job training program and started doing construction and demolition work.

But he would hang around after the construction work was done, bonding with the kids and helping them, so Binaghi hired him as the youth supervisor.

Now, Binaghi tells visitors of the center that Longstreet is being groomed for the executive director position, and the center is helping to put him through school at Dominican University.

The crowd at Friday’s open house cheered when Longstreet announced he has a 3.9 GPA at Dominican, where he majors in computer science and minors in social justice and community engagement.

Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) was one of the people applauding Longstreet in the gym decorated with college banners.

The center used to be a vacant lot, said Ford who lamented the recent closure of some of the neighborhood’s schools as well as the Austin YMCA branch.

“It’s devastating to the community,” he said. “We need places for youth to come. The Peace Corner Youth Center provides [a healthy environment] and structure.”

State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), who represents neighborhoods on the North Side, attended last week’s open house to show her support.

“Whatever our neighborhood’s issues are, we’re one city,” she said. “We all want the same things – to feel safe walking down the street and a good education.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and Commander Barbara West of the 15th Police District also attended the open house, and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’ (D-Chicago) office was represented.

Executive Director Duane Wilson announced the upcoming launch of a new Android app that will have academic tests and other tools aimed at youth.

Users will also be able to fill out a resume to send directly to employers through the app, said Wilson.

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