By Tom Moen
EMCC Executive Director
Over 50 years ago, the East Madison Community Center first opened its doors in a small, church basement that would serve as a temporary teen center. The activity options for the teens could be generously described as modest. A few board games, some books, a pan of broken crayons, a radio, a television, assorted sofas and a parent volunteer were all there was to greet the teens. This was truly a humble beginning for a community center that the Wright St. Betterment Association had worked toward for nearly two years. Fortunately, it was a place in the neighborhood to help keep kids “off the streets” in a supervised environment. As the decades rolled on, keeping kids “off the streets” was determined to be a good start, yet insufficient. If the youth were “off the street,” let’s help them learn the stepping-stones for a meaningful life. Let’s “make a difference!”
Because of the initial community effort of the neighborhood mothers who created the Wright Street Betterment Association, the East Madison Community Center would grow over the years and become a local source for area residents, especially the youth, to grow and develop. It was eventually decided to create an environment where success in college is no longer just a dream, but is actually the norm for kids who are regular participants at the center. So what’s changed over the past five decades?
The obvious difference is that the center has gone from 400 sq. ft. to 20,000 sq. ft. and the budget has gone from essentially no budget to $600,000 annually. Staff has increased from a few parent volunteers to 15 paid staff and 300 volunteers annually. But the most subtle change, and perhaps the most important change, is that the center’s programming has expanded, diversified and services currently emphasize a holistic approach to youth development.
Holistic youth development is the center’s primary priority in assuring that youth can have the opportunity to live safe, healthy, and productive lives, which ultimately strengthens the communities in which they live. Holistic programming encourages personal growth, promotes positive behavior change and helps develop future leaders by offering a comprehensive menu of interrelated activities. Center programs foster healthy decision-making at critical moments so that youth do not just survive – they thrive. Our students may excel in one or more of the set of skills taught at EMCC, but the center still makes it a priority to emphasize a wide variety of learning opportunities to assure they become well-rounded individuals. Holistic programs promote personal growth of the “whole” child.
Center staff believes it takes a combination of skills and a broad range of interests for youth to succeed and reach their full potential:
- Teaching children to read and to develop good study skills are vital tools for success.
- Educating a child on the benefits of nutritious foods and regular exercise, and involving them with healthy meals and daily wellness activities, frequently leads to kids adapting those habits as life-long patterns.
- Providing guidance to young people on how deal with stress and how to manage anger are essential life skills.
- Improving leadership skills and building strong self-esteem are also crucial assets.
- Introducing kids to other cultures will break down barriers and help them gain a greater appreciation for individual differences.
- Encouraging our youth to volunteer in their neighborhood and to be active in community service projects will put the kids on a favorable trajectory to develop into caring citizens and to “give-back” throughout their lives.
- Involving children in the various forms of art offered at EMCC and throughout the Madison area will help broaden their interest and awareness of art culture; so often out-of-reach for low-income families.
So to help student participants maximize their experience at EMCC, we essentially wove all the above learning opportunities into a comprehensive, smorgasbord of weekly youth services. Our holistic youth programming strengthens the entire child. The diversified, “wrap around”, youth services such as those offered at the East Madison Community Center, help develop assets and increase capacity for kids in a variety of areas including emotional, physical, educational, ethical, cultural and social development.
The bottom line is that holistic youth development is a positive, healthy and far-reaching approach for supporting children as they grow, learn and evolve into confident, accomplished, well-versed and compassionate adults. And it’s all offered for free at EMCC.