Austin teens will have a new place to shoot hoops, play pool or just chill when Peace Corner’s new building opens by the end of January.
Construction on the 20,000 square foot facility began late October. The larger facility will allow Peace Corner, 5014 W. Madison, to add new programs and service more youths.
The extra space is needed, explains its founder and current executive director, Father Maurizio Binaghi. On average the 10-year-old center serves between 45-60 youths daily, but that number mushrooms to 90 during the winter months. Between youths playing ping pong, video games and kids in class, “…this place gets overcrowded,” Binaghi said.
The new facility will house a basketball court, offices, a lounge area, computer lab and a large dividable classroom. Peace Corner funded the project through private donations. The city of Chicago donated the lot next to the center’s current facility for $1.
The expansion marks the next level for the youth drop-in center that serves at-risk youth. Binaghi wants to establish a basketball team for inter-league play on the West Side. The space also has a kitchen cooking classes. The center will be open to the community as a rental space for meetings or a space for programs targeted to seniors.
“We had dreams to do several things but we couldn’t,” he said of its current facility’s limited space.
The expansion compliments the cadre of programs Peace Corner offers. Those include GED classes, after school tutoring and teen support groups. Its job placement program targets youth and young adults with criminal backgrounds. The organization partnered with a nonprofit housing development agency to provide construction jobs; participants are trained as laborers and do prep-work for buildings slated to be rehab.
“The idea behind it is that nobody would ever hire anybody with a criminal background. We will,” Binaghi said, adding that the goal is to provide them with a work history in order to open more doors for them; some have gone on to open their own landscaping businesses.
The Peace Corner grew out of Binaghi’s experience working at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. He saw kids cycle in and out of jail and figured “the problem was not in prison, but outside.”
That problem, he explained, was the lack of support for at-risk youth once they left prison. Wanting a safe place to go where they didn’t have to “watch their backs all the time,” Binaghi started an informal support group that met in church basements. Eventually that support group evolved into Peace Corner.
“Knowing all the issues of violence, gangs and drugs, I wanted a place for them where they didn’t need to be tough or rough, but where they could relax and be themselves,” Binaghi said. “We don’t judge them. The guys appreciate that, because we don’t look down to them because they are in gangs.”
That simple premise allowed him to open the organization’s doors to everyone regardless of gang affiliation. On any given day, Binaghi noted that between four and five different gang factions come to the center. And in the organization’s 10 years, the center never had any trouble except for the occasional “arguments over pool games and ping pong, but nothing violent,” he said.
And keeping the center open largely depends on the youth “establishing a safe space,” the Father added.
That amiable atmosphere extends to the Madison block Peace Corner sits on.
“If you notice, this spot on Madison is drug free. There is nobody on this corner,” Binaghi said. “That was one of the results of us being here to keep the corner safe. It was done by talking to them; listening to them.”
Anthony Mabry, 20, can attest to the saving grace of Peace Corner. He used to be involved in the “stuff” that Binaghi works to get youth detached from. Coming to the center got him away from the streets. Now Mabry works as a youth guidance counselor.
“It gave me somewhere to come after school [because] there is a lot of stuff going on out there…stuff you really don’t want to be a part of,” Mabry said.