Austin’s youth resource center embarks on a huge expansion

BUILD Chicago’s Austin headquarters is adding 40,000 square feet of safe space for youth and families in the area.

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BUILD Chicago in the Austin neighborhood is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 12, 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

BUILD Chicago in the Austin neighborhood

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

By the time Dominque Young was in middle school, he was running with gangs on the streets of Austin. Zaire McNeil grew up in the same neighborhood under the watchful eye of her grandmother, who was wary of gangs like Young’s.

Still, the two found their paths crossing at Austin’s youth resource center, BUILD Chicago. It wouldn’t be long before the center became a second home for both of them.

“It changed my whole life, gave me a different mindset and showed me there’s more to the world.” said Young, 19, who started going to BUILD Chicago in 2014.

McNeil, 16, began participating in programs at the nonprofit on 5100 W. Harrison St. in 2019.

It was the art program that originally drew them to BUILD Chicago. It was therapeutic and gave them the chance to see their art hanging on the walls of the building. Over time, Young and McNeil joined more programs, like the youth mentorship group. Now, they’re at the center almost every day.

Established in 1969, BUILD Chicago is a gang intervention and prevention program.Originally on Milwaukee Avenue, it moved to Austin in 2011, where it sits on a full city block and offers 10,000 square feet of safe space for youth.

That 10,000 feet will soon be 50,000.

In 2016, when gun violence was rising across the city and Austin was near the top of the list of most violent neighborhoods, BUILD Chicago board members realized they needed to create “a hub for kids,” with services in the neighborhoods most affected.

A teen center and a wellness room for therapy services was created soon thereafter.But as BUILD’s services and programs expanded, so did the need for space.

“Kids are dying every day,” CEO Adam Alonso said. “It’s our reality, and it’s sad. We’ve lost youth here to gun violence, and I think there’s a sense of urgency to work harder, do more.”

Fundraising for the addition began quietly in 2018, with the goal originally set at $15 million. It’s now $24 million.

BUILD has raised more than $20 million for the 40,000-square-foot expansion, and Alonso is confident they can raise the rest through donations, state funding and grants like the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund.

UJAMAA Construction will begin work on the three-story structure in September. The existing building will be remodeled into an education center for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. It will include a music production suite with recording and rehearsal space.

While the current center fits 100 people, the new space will be able to accommodate 2,000. The project is estimated to be completed by September 2022.

BUILD Chicago’s 40,000-square-foot addition was designed with input from youth participants.

BUILD Chicago’s 40,000-square-foot addition was designed with input from youth participants.

BUILD Chicago

Sports programs, art programs and counseling services will all be expanded. The most requested item for the development, a gym, will be climate-controlled and include a track and fitness center.

The center will be open from 6 a.m. to midnight. During the school year, it will be open to the community from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., but from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. the space will be open to youth only. It will reopen to the community from 8 p.m. to midnight.

“In order to ensure that our young people can be fully recovered from … the dual challenges of COVID-19 and gun violence ... we have to work that much harder to bring resources to bear with our young people,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday at a ground-breaking ceremony.

For Young and McNeil, the new center is a symbol of hope and inspiration. It will offer today’s youth something they feel they didn’t have growing up: a childhood.

“The problem in our community is that so many of us have to grow quickly,” McNeil said. “I hope it gives somebody the childhood that they deserve, that I didn’t really have.”

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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