In a large room with chipped tables and stuttering fluorescent lights, high school students gathered Thursday at The Booker T. Washington Center of Excellence and discussed what distracts them from their goals.
“Some friends try to bring you down to their level,” one teenage girl observed, and others nodded.
Participants, who are part of a Workforce Development career training program, received pointers from Mercer University students on skills such as time management and dressing for an interview.
”You want to surround yourself with people who have the same kind of goals as you,” one Mercer student told the students, whose career goals ranged from barber to pediatrician.
Such programs for young people haven’t been seen at the Booker T. Washington Center in more than a year, but its new leaders say there will be plenty more before the year is out.
For most of 2009, the building that had long been a center of community life in the historic Pleasant Hill neighborhood had stood silent and dark after running out of funds.
The Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group that once met there was forced to hold its meetings outdoors instead. And neighborhood leaders expressed concern that the teens who once gathered there were finding other, less healthy, pastimes.
After being taken over by the city in December, the center is now preparing to become a “one-stop shop” for youth services.
With this change, its identity continues to evolve, in some ways moving full circle: Booker T. Washington was founded in 1939 in part to provide services that the city refused to provide to its black residents.
A plea for help
Struggling to stay open, unable to afford a staff, the Booker T. Washington Center asked the city of Macon for help last year.
Grants were funding specific programs at the center, but they didn’t cover operating expenses such as utilities, building maintenance and year-round staff, said Regina McDuffie, chairwoman of the nonprofit board that ran the center. Reliable funding sources had been cut off when United Way and Bibb County eliminated or reduced their support about concerns about the center’s financial management and record keeping.
Longtime center director Howard Scott retired at the beginning of 2009, and the board did not replace him. In the meantime, Scott was hired as a youth services coordinator by the Macon-Bibb Office of Workforce Development.
Last spring, Mayor Robert Reichert offered the Booker T. Washington board a list of options, including having the Parks and Recreation Department take over the center. Initially the board was more interested in working out a funding agreement while maintaining control.
But then Barbara Yancey was hired as the Workforce office administrator, and she conceived a new role for the center.
“This was really sort of my brainchild,” she said. “Booker T. is empty, and more than anything else I felt the young people needed their own space … a state-of-the-art facility where young people could own it and feel like it was theirs.”
She said the goal is to create a comprehensive youth program that will also improve the work force, making Macon more attractive to employers.
Workforce Development offers job training and placement services to young people, including a popular summer job placement program for 14- to 18-year-olds and a related program offering year-round career development.
Yancey envisions making Booker T. the headquarters for these efforts as well as other youth services offered through the school system, the Department of Family and Children Services and River Edge.
Instead of being run by Parks and Recreation and funded through the city’s general fund, the center will be run by Workforce Development and funded through federal Workforce Investment Act money.
This approach was more attractive to both the nonprofit board and the city.
“For the city it was like: ‘Great, we can keep Booker T. but it doesn’t have to come out of our budget,’” Yancey said.
And the board felt that Booker T. would maintain its mission of providing full-family services based on community needs, rather than becoming a simple recreation center, McDuffie said.
“We’ve always been focused on education,” she said. “But now also the employment focus takes that education to the next level. … We hope to boost the local economy while helping people to help themselves.”
Old hangout, new programs
Before the funding drain, Booker T. had been an after-school hangout for teens, and it offered a popular summer camp for younger kids as well as some life-skills classes for adults.
Yancey said she sees the center now focusing on teens but still offering a summer camp and community gathering space. To encourage young people to return, Workforce has successfully sought donations to update the computer lab and is seeking donations of flat-screen TVs and video-game systems, she said.
But she expects the youth programs to be highly structured, with more formal application and enrollment processes than in the past. “We want this to be a hangout with a purpose,” she said.
That’s the hope of Peter Givens, president of the neighborhood improvement group. “It’s got to be more than just a place,” he said. “We need educational stuff, kids working on homework and not just playing around on the Internet unsupervised. ... It’s sorely needed. We know Booker T. is really an anchor in the community.”
Yancey said the goal is to have the center renovated and ready for full service by May 4. Scott, in his job as youth services coordinator with Workforce, will essentially remain coordinator for the center.
But Yancey wanted to emphasize: “In no way have we just repackaged what was. It really is a new day, a clean slate.”
Planned programs include a summer camp reshaped to target 150 children whose parents are in jail; a training program called DREAMS focused on science, math, technology and engineering; and another career development program called “Beat the Street” for 18- to 24-year-old men, Yancey said.
The training efforts address general job readiness skills but also focus on more professional careers than many offered in recent years. The DREAMS program is being built in partnership with Mercer University, Campus Clubs and even the University of Colorado, which will offer scholarships to youths who successfully complete the program, Yancey said.
In addition to these collaborations, Workforce is working with DFACS and River Edge on the summer camp. DFACS is providing the funding and will identify eligible children between the ages of 5 and 12, said Bibb County DFACS Director Marjorie Almand. River Edge will provide case management and assessment of the mental health needs of the students.
Shannon Harvey, the CEO of River Edge, said working together regularly will allow the different agencies to parlay their funding further and simplify the process of youth enrollment in different assistance programs.
“Instead of having five or six places people have to go, they’ll have one place and we’ll come to them,” Yancey said.
Another partnership will team Workforce with the Bibb County school system’s Ombudsman Program. The Ombudsman program offers three hours a day of instruction to at-risk students. Workforce will provide two additional hours of “wraparound” services related to career counseling and job readiness, probably at Booker T. Washington, Yancey said.
Although some of these efforts rely on individual grants, the federal Workforce funding for youths will be the basis of the center’s annual budgets. Yancey said this stream has been steady over the past several years.
Yancey said she has budgeted $115,000 for basic operating expenses of the center. For programming, about $25,500 has been secured, and Workforce is seeking $45,000 more, on top of the year-round Workforce money.
The center still carries some debt from utility bills dating from before the city took control. McDuffie referred questions about the amount of the debt to Scott, who did not return phone calls Wednesday and Thursday.
But Workforce expects to soon receive money that Bibb County allocated for the center in fiscal 2009 and 2010, now that Workforce has provided a new layer of accountability and auditing. That amount should total close to $30,000, said Deborah Martin, the county finance director.
Yancy said that would more than cover the debt. The nonprofit board will continue to exist as a kind of “Friends of Booker T.” group, helping to raise money, Yancey said.
Although the board had vowed a big fund-raising push last year, that didn’t happen.
“Once everyone made the decision to revert (the center) back to the city, it kind of fell apart and lost direction,” Scott said.
An annual golf tournament, the center’s biggest fundraiser, wasn’t held last year, although McDuffie said the board hopes to revive it this year.