Only a year into his job, Peace Corner Executive Director Duane Wilson has big plans, and an even bigger vision, for the Austin-based youth center.
Think “Disney of the West Side.”
Wilson wants the 12-year-old Peace Corner to be the premier destination for kids on the West Side. He plans to offer more technology-centered programming and wrap-around social services for both adults and youth
“I want this to be the premier destination for kids…for empowerment, for love and support, as well as a great resource for the community,” said Wilson, who worked at the Disney company after college.
The Peace Corner is hosting an open house at is 5022 W. Madison facility on June 14. It’s already is a safe haven from gangs and gun violence, but tops on Wilson’s to-do-list is addressing the digital divide within the black community. He plans to link free laptops with volunteerism.
Under his Impact180 program, youth who volunteer 80 hours in the community get a free lap.
Wilson has even developed an “app” to encourage learning and make it fun. The Android device app offers academic quizzes, motivation readings and fun facts. A resume template lets students and adults fill out and email resumes to potential employers.
Another project is Peace Corner U, a partnership with the University of Chicago, where students who complete certain classes — like anger management, robotics or a CPR class — will receive an “associates of completion” certificate. Additional classes will get them a “bachelors of completion.”
Wilson hopes the experience will encourage students “to do the real thing” and go to college. Other programs include a young adult and youth legal clinic, entrepreneurial programs, and a 9-week improv comedy class.
A Villa Park native, Wilson, 27, often had access to such programs while many urban students do not.
“It breaks my heart that I grew up 25-30 miles away from here and kids don’t have access to the same thing. I don’t think that’s right,” said the 2008 University of Iowa grad. “Providing these things… youth can never say ‘I was never presented this opportunity.'”
That disparity drove him back in 2010. He was hired as an associated director of the Peace Corner to improve its activities.
Since then, the center now offers more year-round activities where before most were offered in the summer. On a slow day, the Peace Corner serves about 100 youth.
The expanded services, Wilson maintains, keeps kids off the streets, develops critical thinking skills and makes them college and job ready. The Peace Corner’s doors are also open to adults.
For Wilson, ensuring a child’s welfare also means meeting parents’ needs. Adults use the center during school hours where they receive job referrals, computer and financial literacy help. Providing that wrap-around service demonstrates the agency’s effectiveness in the community, Wilson said.
But youth activism is Wilson’s calling — he opted to be youth worker instead of a minister, and has worked with kids in Iowa and France.
“Always had a passion for kids,” he said.
Arie Stephens already knows about the positive things happening at Peace Corner. She’s been coming to the center since she was 9 year old. Now 14, Stephens — who just joined the inprov club — likes the center because it allows students to be themselves.
“It’s a good place,” she said. “You can be you and don’t have to worry about anything.”