Center of Attention

Published in the Spring 2011 issue of SSA Magazine

"This isn't gym and swim," says Ayoka Samuels, senior program director at the Gary Comer Youth Center. "We are serious here."

If your notion of a youth center is a drop-in facility where kids lounge around playing pick-up basketball and foosball, think again. Sure, there is time to blow off steam at the five-year-old GCYC playing hoops or trying out programs in everything from art to African drumming. But the programmatic thrust of the center is to prepare kids for a productive future. That means homework help and training in topics like broadcast journalism and horticulture. The summer college tour is a big draw, sending teenagers as far away as Florida A&M University and Xavier in New Orleans. This summer counselors hope to arrange a trip to Boston to visit students at Harvard who have served as interns at the center.

The center also is a community resource, home to the South Shore Drill Team and Free Spirit Media, a youth-run broadcast and digital production company, as well as a health center run by Access Community Health Network. Though not intended to be a full-scale clinic, the health center is staffed with a nurse practitioner, a social worker and a medical assistant to serve both the center and the high school.

"Our focus is on being a resource around issues of health and wellness," says Linda Diamond Shapiro, A.B. '77, A.M. '78, M.B.A. '88 (Booth), vice president for strategy, planning and external affairs at Access. "We're school-linked, because that's what makes sense, but our goal is to mine the rich resources of the campus to build campaigns around health that will benefit the whole community."

Put it all together and wrap it up in a stunning building (the center won a 2009 national design award from the American Institute of Architects), and the youth center is more than a sum of its parts. "The Gary Comer Youth Center serves as a positive anchor for this community," says Samuels. "We're making Greater Grand Crossing a destination, not just the neighborhood you pass through on your way to Hyde Park or South Shore."