RACINE — Quincy Harrison, Racine YMCA Young Leaders Academy Director, beamed as he watched three of his Young Leaders play basketball at the George Bray Neighborhood YMCA on Wednesday.
“Her dad went through Young Leaders Academy, too,” Harrison said, pointing to St. Catherine’s sixth-grader Ariana Green.
The Bray Center isn’t a typical YMCA. There’s no pool. The weight room was removed and replaced with a computer lab. The after-school programs aren’t focused on kickball.
“This is a really good opportunity to make more of a difference in the community,” YMCA Racine President and CEO Jeffrey Collen said.
He believes the YMCA has morphed into what the community truly needs.
From September 2016 through February 2017, the George Bray Center sat vacant at 924 Center St. — it was closed due to lack of funding. Now, after a little more than a year since reopening under the YMCA’s umbrella, it’s become a hub once again.
The George Bray Neighborhood YMCA serves a lower-income community. The median income for the 53403 zip code where the community center is located is $42,391, nearly $14,000 lower than the median for Racine County.
When the Bray Center was reopened by the YMCA — thanks in part to sizable donations from Ruud Lighting President Christopher Ruud and retired NBA All-Star Caron Butler — its administrators had planned for it to function like a typical Y, hosting youth camps and offering a safe place to exercise. Soon, however, they realized it needed to become something different.
“We realized it within that first month,” said Quincy Harrison, building director.
The team started identifying problems in the surrounding community — joblessness, trouble with the law, unhealthy family units — and began bringing in programs to address them. Without the Bray Center, the neighborhood would probably be lacking in after-school activities and adult education.
Bray is busy
Among the programs hosted at Bray, there is a computer skills training course that graduated its first seven members in January, and the spring session is already underway. Four Racine Unified schools also have activities at Bray.
According to Bray’s 2017 branch report, more than $400,000 in need-based financial assistance was distributed through the YMCA and the United Way, 138 jobs were directly created, and 7,000 people came through the Bray Center’s doors in its first year as a YMCA.
Young Leaders Academy
The Young Leaders Academy is headed by Harrison and educator Antonio Crane, 41. It comprises the young people’s focus at Bray.
Middle schoolers come in four days a week and high school students come twice weekly. Crane works with them on educationally adjacent lessons, teaching things that may not be covered in school. This includes etiquette, financial readiness and establishing good credit.
“My job is to ensure quality programming and that our students have access to college and career readiness tools and opportunities,” Crane said.
The YLA provides a bridge between school and home. Not only does it help keep kids busy before their parents get off work, but also furthers their skill sets.
“If I want a job in the future, I have to know how to present myself correctly,” said Nehemiah Johnson, 13.
Of the five high school seniors currently in the program, four have committed to colleges.
With young people, the goal at Bray is often to give kids a leg up. But with adults, several of Bray’s programs focus on playing catch-up.
Focus on Fathers
The name of the program “Focus on Fathers” is a little misleading. It has a women’s branch, and some of the men don’t have kids.
The original goal of the Focus on Fathers curriculum — which saw 450 participants in its first year at Bray — is “to help fathers become better fathers,” said Zakee Darr, the program’s coordinator.
That, like so much else at the community center, changed quickly.
Now, the focus is often on helping struggling individuals get back on their feet. Darr said that the struggles in his community can be broken down into four main categories: employment, driver’s license, bank account and housing.
“If we can address those four with the people coming into the fatherhood program, then they can be well on their way,” Darr said.
Parolees are often sent directly to the Bray Center to get help. Darr and Harrison love this, because it gives them an immediate opportunity to offer guidance to the people who may need it most.
Many youths who find themselves in trouble with the law are ordered to do community service at Bray.
“If we get them in here, we can get them to take a whole lot of next steps and make a huge difference,” Collen said.
Looking to the future
Although the Bray Center’s leaders are often busy, they do take some time to plan ahead.
Harrison wants to move the computer lab upstairs and put in a first-floor kitchen to serve hot breakfasts to kids before school. The gym floor was refurbished last month — again, thanks to generous donations. Collen is working on establishing a partnership with pediatricians to serve kids at Bray whose parents may not be taking them to see a doctor.
Bray may have recently been reborn, but there’s plenty of experience leading it onward into its second year back.