Chicago Gazette Features Midtown's 50th Anniversary

On May 1, 2015, the Gazette featured the below article on MEF in its print newspaper and online.

Midtown Center celebrates 50th anniversary of helping youth

By Mary Voelker

Al Castaneda of Chicago grew up in the Pilsen neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the neighborhood suffered from gangs, drugs, and violence.

Al Castaneda talks about his experience at Midtown in the 1970's in the 2nd of 5 alumni profiles highlighting MEF's history.

At the Midtown Center for Boys, he found the help he needed, not only to break away from neighborhood influences but to excel in academics and sports and to mature in character as a man.

“I really think Midtown changed the trajectory of my life,” he said. Castaneda graduated from St. Ignatius High School in 1982 and went on to earn a bachelor’s and graduate degrees from DePaul University.

Now an information technologies professional at Kellogg Co., married 22 years and the father of eight, Castaneda is spearheading an alumni reunion in July to kickoff Midtown’s 50th anniversary.

The anniversary “means a great deal to us, but it means a great deal more to kids in the program and their parents,” said Bob Kornecki, director of individual giving at Midtown Educational Foundation, which supports Midtown programs. “It’s all about the kids and their families.”

Through after school and summer school tutoring, Midtown prepares low-income, urban youth in the fourth through 12th grades for admission to better high schools and colleges, Kornecki said.

The program helps build character by instilling honesty, respect, charity, and compassion, he added.

“They become better students and better people,” Kornecki said. Midtown started out serving low-income boys when it opened in 1965 and then added a program for girls in 1985. The boys’ center is now at 1819 N. Wood St., and the girls’ program is at 310 S. Peoria St. Since it opened, the center has enrolled nearly 22,000 students in its programs, receiving 14.5 million hours of academic and character-building instruction.

A survey by Midtown found 91% of 900 recent Midtown alumni reported they have graduated or are still enrolled in college. Tony Acosta, 57, attended Midtown in the 1960s with about 20 other boys. He recalled that the center consisted of three buildings at Loomis and Lexington Streets at that time—a classroom building, a wood shop, and a garage. Acosta said he went to Midtown Center for help with math.

“My best memory was my math studies,” Acosta said, noting Midtown “did help me out.” He said in the garage, he learned how to box. In the wood shop, he made crafts with hand tools— no power tools. Volunteers supervised the sports.

“We played soccer, baseball, and basketball,” he said. “When we played sports, we played by street names: ‘We’re playing Bishop; we’re playing Fillmore.’

“They had some strict rules,” Acosta recalled. “No fighting, stuff like that.” Sports were played at Victor Arrigo Park, 801 S. Loomis St., which was nicknamed “Peanut Park” because of the peanut shaped walking path, Acosta said. “I remember back in the ‘60s they put the statue of Columbus one block away from Midtown,” Acosta said. “The mayor [Richard J. Daley] was there.”

Acosta went on to graduate from Lane Tech High School. Now in the produce business, he is married with one daughter. Acosta recalls that his Midtown instructor would promise a reward of a Burger King Whopper if Acosta did well with his studies. It was a special treat. “We chose BK because it had a bigger burger,” he said.

Acosta said his friendships with his classmates from Midtown Center have lasted for years, into adulthood. “We always hung around together,” he said.

Alumni from the 1960s and 1970s have fond memories of such Midtown personnel as Gil Kaufman, Joe Major, Paul Deck, Peter Dowbor, Tom Kane, Joe Landauer, Mike Geistler and Dan Kelley.

Claudia Valencia, an aide to U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-4th), graduated from Midtown’s girls program. She grew up in Brighton Park and said Midtown helped her connect with other girls whose interests mirrored hers.

“It was a place of growth, both academically and personally,” she said. “It really allowed me to grow as a woman.”

Valencia received her bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2012. While in college, she qualified for a scholarship to study in Italy for six weeks.

“I still work [at Midtown] as a dance teacher and education teacher,” she added. Targeting low-income students with average grades, usually kids with Cs and Bs, both the boys’ and girls’ centers provide individual academic tutoring, character education, and extracurricular activities for students. They also provide parenting skills classes.

Many of the students come from difficult neighborhoods where kids are faced with gang violence and drugs, Kornecki said. Midtown gave Castaneda a chance to “be with boys who were serious about their studies,” Castaneda said. He connected to a group of boys who bonded and as young men went on to finish college and graduate school.

Castaneda returned to volunteer at the center as an adult and feels his experience there helped him acquire the patience he needed with his own children.

What separates Midtown from other programs are the outreach and support to parents, Kornecki said. Many parents never finished high school and make sacrifices so their children can attend Midtown.

“Raising kids in this environment is still a tough job,” Kornecki said. “ We lend a helping hand with that.”

Valencia said her mother and father attended Midtown’s parent programs.

“Both my parents attended the weekend programs, but my mom would go to the weekday programs,” she said.

Midtown raises $3 million per year from private donors, corporations, and foundations to support programs for more than 1,000 students, Kornecki said. The organization receives no State or Federal funding.

Parent fees, based on ability to pay, make up eight percent of the budget, he added. For example, the school year cost for parents who can afford the fee is $250 per student.

Midtown is celebrating its 50th anniversary from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 18, with an alumni reunion at the original Midtown site and now foundation home, 718 S. Loomis St. Former staff will return to mull over old photos and recall memorable Midtown moments.

“This is going to be a fun raiser, just having fun,” Castaneda said. To honor Midtown’s anniversary, 28th Ward Ald. Jason C. Ervin is naming the intersection of Lexington and Loomis “Midtown Way.” The official naming ceremony had not been set at press time, said Samantha Stinson, Ervin’s office manager.

In the meantime, Midtown Center will host its third annual Summer Rooftop Soiree featuring cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, live music, and cash and prize raffles at 333 S. Halsted St. on Thursday, May 28.

The foundation will hold a golf outing in Schaumburg on Monday, June 29. For the complete event schedule, go to Midtown Center also is accepting applications for summer programs.

For more information on Midtown programs and its anniversary events, call (773) 292-2660