A Youth Center Built on Gold

East St. Louis, Ill.—On a residential street, catty-corner from a hopping neighborhood tavern lit with neon signs and across from a garbage-strewn vacant lot, the Mary Brown Recreational Center sits abandoned. The plywood that closed the front entrance has been ripped down, and snow blows into the cavernous building, which looks like a spaceship.

This is not how Jackie Joyner-Kersee remembers it. The Olympic track star grew up just around the corner. For her, Mary Brown was a library. It was a place to practice cheerleading and modern dance with her sisters. It was where she got her start as an athlete and where she worked her first job. In those days kids played basketball and volleyball here. There were movie nights and dances.

But when she came back to town as a college freshman in 1981 to bury her mother, Joyner-Kersee made a pilgrimage to the Mary Brown Center – and found the doors chained shut.

“I wonder where all the kids go now?” her husband, Bob Kersee, recalls her asking. “She just noticed that there wasn’t anything around for youth.”

There is now.

When Joyner-Kersee’s dream to rebuild the Mary Brown Center fell victim to politics and red tape, she did something that only the rich and famous can do: She raised $12 million from admirers (like Nike) to build and launch her own center.

The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Boys & Girls Club (known simply as JJK) occupies 41,000 square feet on 37.5 acres, and even has its own MetroLink stop. It stands as an inspirational gift to poor urban youth – and it raises questions about whether a gleaming new center is enough to attract them, what it takes to sustain a five-star facility in a downtrodden town, and whether a youth center can help spur a neighborhood’s economic revival.

After all, East St. Louis has become synonymous with disinvestment and urban decay. Look in any direction from almost anywhere in the residential area surrounding JJK, and you see boarded-up and burned-down homes and vacant lots. This city has lost 55 percent of its population in the past 30 years.

JJK looks as if it were beamed in from another universe. It features a wood-floor gymnasium with retracting bleachers that can seat 1,200; a fitness and weight room; two computer labs; a science lab; a dance studio; a music room with instruments; an arts and crafts room; a cafeteria with a full kitchen; a recreation area with a big-screen TV, foosball, air hockey and pool tables; and a wellness center with two exam rooms, staffed by a nurse from a local hospital.

Step outside and find two baseball fields, two softball diamonds and two football fields. Plans call for an indoor pool, an indoor track and a performing arts theater. But they’ll need another $25 million for that.

Aside from providing a state-of-the-art gathering place for kids, many people here see the 3-year-old JJK as boosting community morale and helping to foster optimism that things might turn around.

If You Build It …

For a snapshot of what may be JJK’s biggest challenge, consider this picture: At 3:30 one recent afternoon, there were dozens more teens outside waiting for the train or bus than there were in the center.

Underutilization is a common problem for youth centers, but one that seems solvable with the resources of JJK.
“With a building like this and the potential we have, there should be no less than 200 kids here a day,” admits Kersee, who became interim executive director in December.

On that Thursday afternoon there were about 60, including two elementary school teams playing basketball, their tallies kept on two electronic scoreboards. Among the center’s 2,500 members, who pay an annual fee of $12, the largest age group is 11- to 13-year-olds. Next are 6- to 9-year-olds.

Kids scan their membership cards as they drift in past the front desk. The dozen or so teenagers who’ve shown up move in herd fashion through the afternoon from one computer lab to a second, then to foosball and checkers. The fitness room remains empty all afternoon, as do the dance studio, the music room, the science lab, the art and crafts room and the wellness center.

Center staffers say the snow that day probably kept another 20 kids away. Last summer, says Operations Manager Rick Lewis, JJK consistently served 500 kids per day and hired between 40 and 50 activity staff members. During the school year, the numbers drop significantly.

Eight to 10 activity staff members are on hand each day during the school year, plus 14 to 16 full-time administrative and custodial employees. On this particular day, staffers are all over the building, but they play a low-key role, not trying to manage the youths’ every minute.

Staffers, including Kersee, maintain close contact with youth who come regularly. They visit schools to talk with teachers about a youth’s grades or discipline issues.

“I had left for a couple of weeks, and they were calling for me to come back,” says Keyanna, 14. “It made me feel like I was wanted here.”

So what’s the problem?

Lewis says many East St. Louis youth aren’t used to a structured after-school program. JJK has set times for kids to do their homework, a schedule for the computer lab and gym, and rules for the Internet.

Besides, says Lewis, it’s difficult to lure kids to the center if their friends still hang out near home. That’s why JJK runs off-site programs in a church and in a school, and is about to start a third in a neighboring town. The club wants to start satellite programs at eight public housing projects, the nearest of which is just six blocks away.

Why, with a world-class facility, would JJK start programs in run-down public housing facilities and schools?

“The idea is, we take services to the kids, create a service for them daily, and then bring them in here and broaden their horizons,” says Lewis, who notes that many kids in East St. Louis never venture more than a few blocks from home. He says it’s difficult for kids to look for something if they don’t know what they’re missing.

Even if they come to JJK once, he says, they might remember it as a nice experience, but the center hasn’t figured out how to get them to make the place a habit.

Ragtag Draws Kids

Down the street, ragtag neighborhood after-school programs attract many more teens than JJK does. The Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, a multi-service community- based organization, sees around 45 youth a day. The Emerson Park Development Corp. gets about the same number, mostly 15- to 16-year-olds.

The difference between their facilities and JJK is stark. Emerson Park houses its after-school program (and a charter school during the day) in a rundown former vanilla factory. The cold, cement-floor gym still looks like a warehouse. Strips of insulation are slung over a gigantic garage door. Basketball hoops, the kind sold at K-Mart, have been wheeled into place around obstacles such as a mountain of donated furniture, a parked van and support pillars.

Bill Kreeb, executive director at Lessie Bates Davis, describes that facility as “a hundred years old, kind of dark. We paint it and stuff, but it’s kind of rough.”

“Our kids would much rather go over there [to JJK] than come down here,” Kreeb says. “We’re actually evaluating: Maybe what we ought to do is get some more vans, train additional drivers and just transport kids over there, rather than even have a program here.”

All of the kids in the Emerson Park and Lessie Bates programs are registered members at JJK.

So why don’t more of them go there?

Accessibility seems to be an issue. Kids can stay at Emerson Park until 9 p.m. and at Lessie Bates until 10. JJK officially closes at 7, but nearly all the kids have cleared out by 6:30. It’s almost impossible for teens involved in extracurricular activities at school to do anything at JJK, because the center is no longer open on Saturdays. (The massive Kroc Center in San Diego, by contrast, is open seven days a week and hosts midnight hockey leagues.)

Emerson Park and Lessie Bates have vans to pick kids up at school and take them home. Even with the MetroLink stop out front, transportation to JJK is still an issue. “We have great transportation, but our kids don’t travel,” Lewis says.

Back out where the teens wait for the train and bus, they give a number of reasons for not spending time at JJK: It closes too early; it’s for little kids; there is nothing for teens to do there; they don’t want to get home after dark; they have to work.

One youth worker in East St. Louis suggests that, in a community that is overwhelmingly low-income with many single-parent families, it is unrealistic to insist that kids be accompanied by a parent or guardian to register, as JJK does.

Once kids make it to JJK, however, they clearly benefit.

“If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be the same shy little person,” says Aja Junior, 15, a confident, well-spoken sophomore who writes a column for East St. Louis’ weekly newspaper and was the club’s 2002 Youth of the Year. “Right now, I’d probably be at home watching TV or asleep. Before the center, I didn’t do anything.”

Big Money

The big rumor in East St. Louis is that the club is in financial trouble. Kersee says the JJK is in no worse financial shape than many businesses are in a tough economy. “I’m having less headaches right now than the CEO of United Airlines,” says Kersee.

But the agency’s 2001 tax forms show a budget shortfall of $1.17 million, which was nearly half its operating budget. And while expenses have been increasing – from $1.7 million in 2000 to $2.4 million in 2001 – revenues have been slipping.

The land and building are paid for. Tax-related documents show that JJK paid more for office furniture in 1999 and 2000 – $122,055 – than either Emerson Park or Lessie Bates spent to run their after-school programs for a year.

Most of JJK’s funding has been private, although it has received more than $250,000 from the Illinois Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs and more than $150,000 from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Kreeb of Lessie Bates says Joyner-Kersee, thanks to her international celebrity status, has brought in largely new, private money, something the smaller youth programs in town have been unable to do. Most of the funding for his organization – the biggest community organization in town, with 250 employees – comes from the state or federal governments, Kreeb says.

“Once Jackie Joyner-Kersee put her name on this project, the momentum that was gained was phenomenal,” Lewis says.

“That’s when the million-dollar players started coming to the table.” (They include Nike, Annheiser Busch, the Danforth Foundation, and the state of Illinois.) The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation raised $10 million in three years. By comparison, Lewis says, it took a sorority more than 10 years to raise $2 million for a new child-care center in the city.

While lots of athletes and celebrities write checks to charities and have foundations or special projects that bear their names, few maintain the level of day-to-day involvement that Joyner-Kersee and her husband have. Joyner-Kersee is at the center three or four afternoons a week. She is also CEO and president of the board.

The organization is certainly ambitious: Its strategic plan calls for the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation – the center’s legal name – to have “worldwide presence and impact” by 2005.

For now, the challenge is to have more of an impact on its own neighborhood. “Our biggest concern right now is making sure we get this up and going and sustainable,” Kersee says.

As one local observer put it, “It’s a very important site that has a lot of potential for doing a lot more.”


Bob Kersee, Interim Executive Director
Jackie Joyner-Kersee Boys & Girls Club
101 E. Jackie Joyner-Kersee Circle
East St. Louis, IL 62204
(618) 274-5437

Vickie Forby, Executive Director
Emerson Park Development Corp.
P.O. Box 6126, East St. Louis, IL 62202
(618) 874-1671

Bill Kreeb, Executive Director
Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House
1045 State St., East St. Louis, IL 62201
(618) 874-0777

Can a Youth Center Spur Economic Revival?

East St. Louis, Ill.

“A beacon of hope.”

That’s what the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Boys & Girls Club is to this economically devastated city, says Lincoln Ellis, who served as JJK’s executive director from 1998 until the end of last year.

Hope has been a scarce commodity here. It’s gold in community development terms, part of a mix of intangible factors that can spur development – or, when lacking, prevent it from even being considered.

Nearly everyone concurs that JJK is among several projects that have created optimism about the city’s economic future, but it’s not clear whether that optimism will translate into more bricks-and-mortar investments.

A few hundred yards from JJK’s front door sits the best evidence to date that the youth center can be a catalyst for additional development in the area: a stop on St. Louis’s regional light-rail line and a bus turnaround, neither of which was initially planned for the area.

“When the MetroLink found out the plans for [a nearby housing development] and the Jackie Joyner-Kersee center, they decided to cross the Interstate to service us,” says JKK Operations Manager Rick Lewis, referring to I-64. “They discussed the actual routes with us.”

East St. Louis’ biggest private investor, developer Jim Koman, says JJK is good for his commercial developments – a Walgreen’s and nearby strip mall. “I wanted them close to me,” says Koman, who sat on JJK’s founding board and was part of the search committee to find a site for the center. He says JJK is part of a synergy he’s tried to tap into and strengthen.

“The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center and the new housing behind it and being tied to the MetroLink – that is a synergy,” says Koman.

At least one other top-flight community facility demonstrates that it can significantly affect a neighborhood: the Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center near San Diego, a $47 million youth and adult facility that boasts everything imaginable – including an NHL regulation hockey rink, three swimming pools and nine pianos – and some things that are hard to imagine, such as a climbing wall with an air compression system that makes rappelling easier. It is located in Rolando, an economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood.

Even before the ribbon was cut on that center, housing prices in the area started to soar. Now development is taking off. “Five years ago, you were hard-pressed to find a major grocery store” in areas that are now experiencing aggressive retail development, says Shelby Gordon, the Kroc Center’s marketing manager. “I won’t say that the Kroc Center is driving that, but it is part of the whole regional redevelopment picture.”

Eddie Joshway, a real estate broker and appraiser who has worked in East St. Louis for 27 years, says he hasn’t seen any increase in property values there due to JJK, in part because the center is not really set in a neighborhood and is bordered on one side by the Interstate, which limits its impact.

What’s more, he says, “the city of East St. Louis is plagued with such a negative economic and political condition that it would take more than a building like JJK” to turn things around.

JJK has the potential to attract additional development, says Andrew Theising, assistant professor of political science at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, who has studied East St. Louis.

“The city has not attracted or coordinated a meaningful effort to capitalize on JJK,” Theising says. He suggests that attracting nearby commercial development would benefit everyone. “If you have a restaurant or shopping center or some commercial enterprise that has a vested stake in JJK staying open, then maybe there would be someone else out there lobbying for operating money” for the center, he says.


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