NORWICH — One of them has been demolished. The other is empty and dilapidated.
Once pillars of the Norwich community, the closure and subsequent demolition of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and YMCA’s formwork a void for the city’s youth that has become particularly evident amid the normalization caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. .
“Unfortunately, what we see happening today’s young people have little to no outlet,” said Reverend John Burns. “Even before COVID, they still didn’t have a place where they could socialize outside of school and develop those community skills.”
Burns currently lives in Groton, but in reflecting on his childhood growing up in Norwich, the senior pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship in Ledyard pointed out the importance both the YMCA and the MLK Center had to him and his peers.
At the YMCA. Burns remembered the endless games of table tennis and billiards; and the hours he spent on the basketball court or in the pool learning to swim. At the MLK Center, there were community events and weekend gatherings, “where kids could get together and hang out and participate in different activities.”
“The outlets we had in my day are coming — they’re not there anymore,” Burns said. “We stayed out of trouble, we were more respectful. We had those fundamental norms and values that I don’t see much of these days.”
American Eagle:No Longer Threatened: Why Does Connecticut Continue to Monitor the Bald Eagle Population?
In 2009, the recession forced the Southeast Connecticut YMCA to close all of its facilities in the region, including the Norwich complex that has a swimming pool, gym, and racquetball and basketball courts.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Opened in 1967, Community Center played a vital role for the city’s black community before a lack of funding led the City of Norwich to take control of the property in 2019 and approve its demolition in the fall of 2020.
COVID and schools:For Norwich schools, battle to stay open as microwaves are ‘day to day’
David Holland serves as a pastor at Cornerstone City Church in Norwich. Like Burns, he also spent countless hours at both the MLK Center and the YMCA in his younger days, describing both as invaluable resources to the city, lamenting the real impact local families experienced after their respective closures.
“Vandalism, truancy, disrespect for other people, disrespect for their families,” Holland said, ticking off the side effects felt in a city without a community center.
“I hear it all the time, I see it all the time – these parents call me and say their kids graduate with scholarship offers, but during the summer, because they have nothing to do, they get caught up in drugs and guns and all kinds of silly things and their careers are ruined.”
“There is no suitable place in the city for these children to go now,” he added. “Everything that was there is now gone… you start running with the wild side.”
Youth programs available but hard to find
Erin Haggan, Norwich Youth and Family Services Coordinator, said her department’s mission is to “provide all the social and emotional programming and parent programming deemed necessary in the community.”
From meditation to yoga, many of Haggan and her colleagues’ community-based programs focus on raising awareness around mental health issues experienced by local students and their families. That effort, she explained, gets more complex when there’s no community center.
A return to schools for Norwich police officers?: Education council, police chief eye benefits
“The challenges are always in finding a place to have these programs,” Haggan said. “People can’t always identify where we are, whereas if we were in a ‘designated community center,’ people could come in and they would know.”
“There is still a large part of the Norwich population who do not know we are here,” she added.
Pandemic Marked Void Created by Lost Centers
Burns and Holland, which was already limited before the pandemic, said the arrival of COVID-19 only exacerbated the lack of social opportunity and isolation of young people in Norwich, surrounding communities and across the country.
Norwich Public Schools and Norwich Free Academy joined school districts across the country last month by canceling classes in response to widespread threats circulating on social media sites. The decisions came on top of a series of incidents of vandalism and other violent and threatening behavior that have challenged teachers and school officials.
Technical education:The US Secretary of Education underlines the need, opportunities for technical education in Conn. visit
In the wake of the closures, police arrested a Norwich Public Schools student for allegedly making “specific” threats using the social media application Snapchat.
That arrest came weeks after Norwich Free Academy went into lockdown after two students were found on campus with “facsimile firearms”.
“Families already had problems,” Holland said. “Now you’re isolating them together in a house and now that kid sits there and sees it, he’s getting tired of hearing it, so guess what? He disobeys, so he leaves and does what he wants… it’s that ripple effect.”
An advisory from the US Surgeon General, issued Dec. 7, outlined the “unprecedented impact of the pandemic on the mental health of American youth and families, as well as the mental health challenges that existed long before the pandemic.”
According to the advisory, those challenges led to disabilities and poor life outcomes in young people prior to the pandemic, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. having mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorders.
“Mental health problems in children, adolescents and young adults are real and widespread,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in a statement. “…The future well-being of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.”
23 bridges in New London County assessed in poor condition: What inspection data tells us.
A father of four and grandfather of 13 – with a great-grandson – Burns said the result of a lack of involvement with local youth seems obvious from his perspective.
“We have a group of people, mostly young children, who have little to no place to socialize, so what are they doing? They spend a lot of time on the Internet, they radicalize because of a lot of misinformation and misinformation that’s on the Internet,” Burns says.
Raised in Norwich, councilor Derell Wilson remembered the YMCA. and the MLK Center as staples for the community’s youth, in particular the MLK Center, which provides key programming for the city’s West Side neighborhood and “colored kids from all over the city.”
More Norwich news:What’s next for the boxing gym in the center of Norwich, the supermarket, after the Main Street fire?
“They’ve done a lot to embrace parts of history or culture that we weren’t taught in school at the time, but that African American leaders and families thought were important in educating children,” Wilson said.
During downtown-sponsored tours, Wilson saw his first Broadway show—The Lion King—and traveled to Boston for a day spent at the city’s Museum of Science.
“It was a way of introducing kids to things they probably never would have seen,” he added.
Future plans for youth programming
In the continued absence of community programming in Norwich, Wilson said he and other elected officials “hear constantly about a community center.” He pointed to a plan to allocate $800,000 in federal funding, provided through the American Rescue Plan, to establish after-school youth programs that would be hosted using the 12 school buildings of the Norwich Public Schools district.
The councilor said he expects the initiative to have more details in July, but sees it as an “equitable” solution for families living across the city.
Gallup Quarry: Quarry was so polluted that the EPA took over. This is how much the Plainfield pays now.
“Having been coached in the youth basketball league, I know it’s hard for parents to get around town (for) some games,” Wilson said. “This is a way to amplify activities for all children, but also to expand and make it more of a neighborhood situation.”
The plan to use the school buildings does not necessarily preclude a future possibility of establishing a city-owned community center; but for now, Wilson said, it’s an important start.
“This is an opportunity for us to level the playing field,” he said.