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Central Hillside youth center lives on with new leadership

Neighborhood Youth Services has been a fixture of Duluth for the past 30 years. When its future was placed in doubt, community groups rallied together.

Kids play a game of four square.
A group of kids play four square at a community barbecue event hosted by Neighborhood Youth Services on Aug. 30.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — When The Hills Youth and Family Services abruptly closed its doors last summer after 112 years serving the community, some of its programs were left facing an uncertain future.

That included Neighborhood Youth Services, a staple of the Central Hillside neighborhood for the past three decades. The drop-in center provides after-school and summer tutoring services, meals and recreational opportunities to youth in K-12.

"A lot of the parents that we have now were kids here themselves," said Aaron Gelineau, who has worked with the program for more than 25 years. "It's like I'm a grandpa to a bunch of kids. It says a lot about the relationship-building and the level of trust we have in this community."

Determined to keep the lights on for the some 400 kids who access the center annually, plans were quickly made for another longstanding provider, Life House, to temporarily assume control of Neighborhood Youth Services last July.

But now, leaders are focused on the future. The program recently was recently absorbed by a new parent organization, the Family Freedom Center, which aims to not only preserve the center but expand its offerings for generations to come.

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"Traditionally, NYS has been more of a drop-in center and an after-school program," executive director Jacob Bell said. "And while it will continue to be that, at Family Freedom Center we really are focused on more educational programming, recreational programs, trade skills, access to technology, entrepreneurial development. These are all programs we're going to be adding to our youth services."

Like a 'family' for program participants

Located at the Washington Center, Neighborhood Youth Services was established in 1992 by community leaders in conjunction with Duluth Police Chief Scott Lyons and St. Louis County Juvenile Court Judge Gerald Martin. Addressing concerns about crime in the area, the goal was to create a place that would provide a sense of belonging, strengthen families and help keep area youth on the right track.

Leaders describe the program — and its endurance through a recent tumultuous period — as a success story and an example of the community coming together for the greater good.

Gelineau said the program has consistently grown over the years. What started as a small rec-center-based program has blossomed into a larger community program that includes events like the annual Halloween Trunk or Treat and the back-to-school Unity in Our Community at Bayfront Festival Park, where 1,500 backpacks and school supplies were handed out this year.

A woman serves up food.
Tori Thrash, a volunteer with Neighborhood Youth Services, serves up food at a community barbecue event hosted by Family Freedom Center on Aug. 30.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

The program went from having a hot plate to a full kitchen that ensures kids don't go without a meal. Recreational opportunities have expanded to include various field trips, fishing with police officers, kayaking and paddleboarding. Graduation rates also have increased every year, Gelineau said.

"We're reaping the rewards," he said. "We've got so many young kids coming in who are struggling in school — and some who are excelling, too — but it's just being here for them and their families and filling those gaps."

Ashley Mattson's three boys have been regular visitors to Neighborhood Youth Services for about eight years. She said she's happy to see the program survive.

"It's a great place for them," Mattson said. "It's not like you just drop your kids off. It's family. You trust all the instructors and the kids love the instructors. They all uniquely have something to teach the children."

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Keeping the lights on

The sudden closure of The Hills, the program's founding organization, caught many off-guard. The provider — perhaps best known for its residential treatment services at the facility formerly known as Woodland Hills — ended up filing for bankruptcy, citing more than $28 million in debt.

A scramble to maintain the organization's services in Duluth resulted in Northwood Children's Services picking up some some of the mental health treatment services, while Life House stepped in to operate Neighborhood Youth Services.

The program is starting small, designating two beds at Northwood's diagnostic assessment center to help stabilize St. Louis County children with acute needs and behaviors.

Life House provides similar services as a drop-in center downtown, though it's targeted toward homeless and street youth from 14-24. Executive Director Jordon Eunison-Chisti said the nonprofit's board and staff didn't hesitate to take on the challenge.

"We recognized that it was potentially a way to help prevent any future young people coming through our door," he said. "We didn't want to contribute to any further struggles of our youth community, particularly in the Hillside area. So it was a lot of work, but we are really proud at the staff at Life House really stepped up to make sure the program was stabilized for whoever was going to come in and move it forward."

But Eunison-Chisti said there was never serious consideration of Life House keeping the program long-term, citing differences in age ranges and requirements for the two programs. So a consulting firm, Northspan Group, was brought in to help find a new home for Neighborhood Youth Services.

Proud to be Black-led organization

Bell said the program is a natural fit for the Family Freedom Center, which was founded by his late father, Xavier Bell, as one of the few Black-led nonprofits in the region.

Family Freedom Center welcome sign.
A new Family Freedom Center sign welcomes visitors to Neighborhood Youth Services at the Washington Center on Aug. 30. Family Freedom Center assumed leadership of the program Aug. 1.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

"We are an unapologetically Black organization," he said. "What that means is we don't hide who we are. We're proud of who we are, and we're proud of what we do and where we come from."

The Central Hillside and surrounding areas have a significantly higher percentage of African American and Native American families compared to the city as whole. And, according to analysis by Northspan, one-third of households earn income below the poverty line; two-thirds rent rather than own their homes; and there are significant disparities in education, health and transportation access.

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Bell said the Family Freedom Center structures its programming around the specific needs of the Black and Brown community, through it strives to serve all residents regardless of race.

The organization has taken over stewardship of the Hillside Public Orchard to provide more access to fresh food for people of color in the Duluth community.

"When (kids) see people being comfortable in their own skin, and being exactly who they are and who they're meant to be, I think it has kind of a contagious effect, where other people start to get comfortable in their own skin," he said.

Mattson agreed, saying the center is both a convenient place for her boys to go while she works and it provides educational and cultural benefits.

"It's probably one of the most diverse places around here," she said. "You'd think maybe a school would be, but this place is a lot more diverse. It's interesting to have different cultures and we can all understand one another and have conversations that are safe and open-minded."

As program evolves, 'we're going to be us'

Stephen Sinclair started as the program's youth coordinator in March. He said a few local organizations kicked the tires at Neighborhood Youth Services, but the staff was particularly impressed by the initiative taken by Family Freedom Center.

A woman talking with a man.
Interim Duluth Police Chief Laura Marquardt, left, talks with Family Freedom Center Executive Director Jacob Bell at their community barbecue Aug. 30.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

"I think their main thing was they just wanted to see what we wanted and what we were looking for in an organization, because they knew they wanted to partner with us," Sinclair said. "But they weren't trying to use our program for their own means. They wanted to just make sure that we had the best home that we could find."

After assuming leadership Aug. 1, Family Freedom Center began moving its administrative offices from Lincoln Park to the Washington Center, cementing its dedication to the program.

Neighborhood Youth Services sign.
The Neighborhood Youth Services sign located at the Washington Center in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Neighborhood Youth Services is operating with a 2022 budget of just over $250,000, which includes salaries for the equivalent of 5 ½ full-time employees. It receives funding from the Ordean, Northland and Lloyd K. Johnson foundations; Head of the Lakes United Way; Minnesota Office of Justice Programs; Duluth Parks and Recreation; and Duluth Community Development Block Grant.

Bell said there are still some details to be worked out regarding the program's offerings — and even its name. Most of the kids simply call it "The Center."

"The reality of what we're doing here is finding our own identity as a community," he said. "We're figuring out who we are, and we can be whatever we want to be. The history here, the roots that we have, and the background going all the way back to The Hills is something we're all very proud of.

"But we want to have conversations with members of our organization and the kids we serve and the families and the staff and ask, 'Who do we want to be? What do we want to be?' and then creating based on that. At the end of the day, we're going to be us."

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Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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