The team  ready to bring the new Holton Youth and Family Center tolife (l. to r.): Rafeal Andrews, Executive Director of Minority ChristianCoaches Association (MCCA); Mario Costantini, Board president of the HoltonYouth & Family Center; Linda Wade, Executive Director of Above the Clouds;Torre Johnson, Wisconsin Community Services (back row); Joyce Mallory,Executive Director of Malaika Children’s Center; Victor Barnett, ExecutiveDirector of Running Rebels (back row); Holly Patzer,  Executive DirectorWisconsin Community Services; Clarence Johnson, Wisconsin CommunityServices (back row); Shawn Smith, Wisconsin Community Services. Holton Youth Center Team

New Life for Holton Youth Center

by Mary Sussman


In 2011 the doors of the former YMCA Holton Youth Centerwill once again swing open to welcome Riverwest and Harambee youth.  Before its doors slammed shut in early2008, the youth center was attracting some 2,000 children and teens annually.

Mario Costantini, local businessman and long-timesupporter of Holton, said the recreational and educational center forneighborhood children and teens has reorganized as the Holton Youth & FamilyCenter (HYFC) and isabout four to six months from reopening. Costantini is president of theHYFC board and has been involved with the youth center since its inception in1989.  He said the 22,000 square-foot buildingat 510 E. Burleigh Street will likely undergo renovations inthe coming months.  


Coalition of Agencies

Costantini said four independent agencies will constitute the newcollaborative at the center: Minority Christian Coaches Association, Running Rebels, Above theClouds, and Wisconsin Community Services.

Minority Christian CoachesAssociation is a youth development organization that trains coaches and offerssports and education programs. Running Rebels offers youth development programs which leverage youthinterest in sports, music and other activities, providing positive alternativesto gangs and substance abuse. Above the Clouds is a faith-based creative arts/movementprogram for central city kids, 80 percent of whom are girls.  WisconsinCommunity Services advocates for justice and community safety and sponsors programming for at-risk youth.

Costantini said otherorganizations will also run programming out of the Center, even though they arenot collaborative partners with board representation.  For example, Pearls for Teen Girls will be using the centerfor programming.  He said he hopedthat a local university would return to administer an after-school literacyprogram that was popular when the YMCA ran the center.  HOPE Christian School remained a tenantat the Holton Youth Center after the Y withdrew funding in 2008 but has sincemoved.  HYFC is actively searchingfor another school to occupy part of the facility, Costantini said.


Medical College Initiative

Also noteworthy is that theMedical College of Wisconsin announced recently that HYFC was awarded a $1.05million grant to run programming over the next five years for the MedicalCollege’s Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. 

Costantini is hopeful that the new partnership with theMedical College’s Youth Violence Prevention Initiative will help Riverwest andHarambee unite around a shared objective of reducing neighborhood violence andcrime.

“I’mhoping that we can use this as a starting point to convince Harambee andRiverwest that we don’t have to live this way.  A lot of these things happen because we let them happen,”Costantini said. 

Unfortunatelytoo many people accept crime as something that goes with the neighborhood, hesaid.

“[Peoplesay] ‘Well, you have crime in this neighborhood.  It’s just going to happen. You’re just going to have somebodyhold up Alterra like they did [a few weeks ago].  You’re just going to have those kinds of things,’”Costantini said.

“Youknow what?  It doesn’t have to bethat way.  If we accept it, we are,in part, responsible for allowing it to happen.”

In addition to partnering withHYFC, the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative is also partnering with Harambee’sMalaika Early Learning Center, Safe & Sound, Milwaukee Police Department’s 5thDistrict, and Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Community Prosecution Office.  Wisconsin Community Services has been designated by theViolence Prevention Initiative as the lead agency.


A Model of Collaboration

HYFC’s new beginning follows morethan two years of problems.  In the spring of 2008, when the Yannounced that it could no longer afford to run the Holton Youth Center,Costantini said he tried in vain to find a new partner for the center.  The Y had supported the center since1994, but many non-profits were struggling financially because of therecession.

Costantini was one of thefounders of Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, which is also run as a collaborativeof smaller arts groups, including First Stage and Milwaukee Youth Orchestra,among others.   The success ofthe Milwaukee Youth Arts Center encouraged Costantini to consider running theHolton center collaboratively after he failed to find a larger sponsor. In itspre-YMCA days, the Holton center had been run collaboratively.

In November 2009, a group of 80interested representatives from various organizations met at the Helen BaderFoundation to discuss a collaborative venture.  The Holton Youth Centerboard thought that in the weakened economy, there might be any number of smallagencies struggling to survive and such agencies might consider collaboration agood opportunity for them to continue operations.  Afteran extensive selection process, the board found four organizations interestedin working collaboratively. 

ClarenceJohnson, associate executive director of Wisconsin Community Services, said his organization became involved with HYFCin 2009 because it wanted to collaborate with others at a neighborhood level toimprove the quality of life for youth in the community.  He said Wisconsin Community Serviceswants to use its extensive experience with at-risk youth to helpfill “a major void in Riverwest and Harambee.”


A History of Improvement

Long-time Riverwest businessman and communityorganizer Costantini recalled Riverwest as it was 25 years ago. 

In 1986 Costantini and his wife Cathy bought theabandoned factory buildings at 903 E. Burleigh, which now house theCostantinis’ La Lune Collection furniture factory, as well as the FlorentineOpera. At the time, Costantini said they went against almost everyone’s advicein buying the property.  He saidthe area had a reputation for youth gangs and drug dealers operating freely,and many properties were abandoned. 

In 1989, Costantini attended a meeting with otherbusiness owners and the police precinct captain.  The business owners were concerned that crime was out ofcontrol and believed that it was hampering business and residentialdevelopment.

From the discussion with police, it became clearthat young people were committing much of the crime.  That meeting spurred Costantini and several others to openthe first Holton Youth Center. Costantini believed then, as he does now, that neighborhood youth shouldhave good choices to make regarding the way they spend their time.

Costantini recalled that in 1989 the youth center had metaldetectors and bouncers who would frisk the kids as they came in the door. “Itwas like an armed camp in the beginning,” he said.  “[Over time] it became less and less so. We eventually gotrid of the metal detectors. We replaced the bouncers with a grandmother, ‘Mrs.B’ (BeatriceDaniels), who would talk to the kids as theycame in.”  He said that in theearly days the large windows of the gym had to be covered because neighborhoodkids were afraid of gang retaliation if they were seen using the youth centerfacilities.


…For the Price of One Shooting…

He recalled that in 1989 then Milwaukee Police Chief PhilipArreola had told him that one non-fatal shooting costs the city of Milwaukee$400,000 in medical, police, court and correctional costs.  “At that time, it cost about $400,000 ayear to run the youth center,” Costantini said.  “So you think, OK, we prevent one shooting and we’re even.”

“Idon’t know how many shootings the Holton Youth Center has prevented in the 20years of its existence,” Costantini said. “But I get kids who come to see me who say, ‘I’m a nerd. I went toMarquette. I wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for you guys.’”

“The reason for the Holton Youth Center is the same now asit was 20 years ago.  We haveexactly the same issues,” Costantini said.  “I have people say to me, ‘Riverwest is so nice now.  Alterra is there.  The Florentine is there.  There are little parks.  Maybe the need that was there [in 1989]is gone now.  Maybe you don’t needto do anything.’ 

“It’s a maintenance thing.  It’s like when you weed your lawn, you think, okay, all theweeds are gone, I don’t have to worry about it anymore.  It doesn’t work that way.  They come back.”


[This is part one of atwo-part story.  Part two willfocus on violence prevention and the Medical College of Wisconsin’s partnershipwith HYFC.]