Upon entering the McCormick Boys & Girls Club in Uptown, one is bombarded by a wall of sound: the buzz of screaming, laughter, the loud chatter of youth. Centrally located off the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Sheridan Road, the children of Uptown do not have far to travel for a refuge of fun and education any time of the year.
It is most refreshing, stepping out of the mean streets of this North Side neighborhood to smiling faces yelling from across the room, “Hello!”
Javier Ruiz, the 26-year-old community outreach coordinator, greets a visitor at the door as an elderly Vietnamese man talks to his young daughters in a distant language. Over the intercom, staff members attempt to shuffle a gaggle of children of all sizes and nationalities from one activity to the next.
“The McCormick Club stands out because it is so diverse” Ruiz said. “We have Africans, African-Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans.”
The children have a lot to contend with in Uptown. The streets in the area are riddled with drugs and gang activities.
Mitchell Day, the program director, relies on tough love to create a safe environment for those who want it.
“Where I develop the thick skin is that I have worked with this set group of kids for a long time,” Day said. “This is my big, extended family. I have seen a lot of these kids grow up, and I have a protective nature over them.”
Anita Douglas, the teen outreach coordinator, said the children know this is the safest environment they have, but still the dangers are evident.
“There was an occasion when my team members were in the backyard with the kids and they heard gunshots,” Douglas said. “In an orderly fashion, they brought the kids in.”
All the staff members have tales of violence and drugs.
“If you peddle drugs out there, that’s one thing, but don’t come to my door smelling like pot,” Day said. “Don’t come in here and pollute this club, what we stand for and the values that we promote.”
Ruiz understands that he cannot help everyone, and his philosophy reflects this.
“Here we accept that there’s always a bad apple out there,” Ruiz said. “We are not trying to change every teen, every child, but if we can get one out of five, that would be great for us.”
There is no shortage of options for the children at the McCormick Boys & Girls Club. There are five levels of rooms holding activities ranging from basketball and video games to study groups and a music room.
Outside of the chaos of the lobby, the rooms set up for the children are structured and well-managed. Volunteers from Northwestern University wrote a grant to sponsor a science lab here twice a week. Later this week, some of the Northwestern students and graduates will hold lessons for 20 children at a time on the “sound of music” — explaining the science of music and sound. Day said the classes fill up every time.
In the science room, children are taught in a weekly class how to create healthy ethnic food, including Italian, Hispanic, Vietnamese and Indian food. On this day, they are making spring rolls. Down the hall, a young teenage girl is pinning and sewing a golden gown as part of the fashion club that meets twice a week.
On a lower level there is a full-length basketball court that can be split up for shoot-arounds. On the sidelines there are lowered rims for the shorties, when they can muscle out some space.
Another room holds 12 computers, all occupied by younger children. By the door, several girls scissor out paper snowflakes. Much of the activity appeared to be holiday related.
Douglas explained that the teenagers turn out in numbers when the winter arrives.
“In the summer and in the fall when it is nice outside, we service a [younger] population,” Douglas said. “The teens come in when the weather turns cold. They especially feel safe here during the evening hours.”
Back in the lobby, Jamie Tate, a 16-year-old member, is training for a summer job here. He has been coming here since he was 6, and spends a lot of his time here.
“When I was younger the kids would get out of school and get in fights and be doing bad things,” Tate said. “Because I started coming here, I had a positive influence from the staff and coordinators and everybody else. I guess it kept me out of trouble.”
Outside, Uptown resident Rick Conarroe walks his dog and watches the children coming in and out of the club.
“It’s a good thing for these kids,” Conarroe said. “Look around. They could be doing a lot worse.”