JOLIET – A report of shots fired near Second and Richards streets came over Joliet police officer Larry Collins’ police radio on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
The call came minutes before dozens of schoolchildren were scheduled to arrive at the Warren-Sharpe Community Center for its after-school program.
Collins was the neighborhood police officer assigned that day to the community center and the surrounding neighborhood. No one was injured in the drive-by shooting, but officers could be seen canvassing the area searching for information and possible suspects.
The scene is nothing new for Joliet’s South and East Side neighborhoods, said Kay Bolden, the center’s executive director. But there’s more to the city’s South Side – where she grew up in the 1960s – than the shootings and gang violence that’s escalated in recent months.
It all starts within the center’s four walls, where Bolden, the daughter of civil rights activists, has made it her mission to reach children and high-risk teens and transform a struggling neighborhood.
Some days, it’s a never-ending, uphill battle. But on other days, Bolden said she’s amazed by the children who walk through the doors.
“Look at this. All A’s,” Bolden said on a recent afternoon, reading through 8-year-old Marcianna Williams’ report card as other children walked into the multipurpose room for an afternoon hot meal. The little girl grinned as she snacked on an apple.
Photos of children who have come and gone in the center’s 24 years adorn the wall near the front entrance.
“That’s Chris Holmes. He’s graduating from Notre Dame,” Bolden said smiling, pointing to a photo of a young man on the wall.
A community resource with a purpose
Bolden’s mother, Kathleen Bolden, opened the center in 1991, partly because of an escalation in gang violence and drug use in the neighborhood.
“It was not an unusual thing for her to say, ‘Well that’s enough of that. This needs to stop,’ ” Kay Bolden said of her mother, who died in 1994. “But she was also not a person to sit around and criticize. She was a person who got up and took action and dragged everyone she knew along with her.”
In the decade leading up to the center’s opening, plants and factories were closing and leaving Joliet. Good-paying manufacturing jobs went by the wayside, and little pockets of poverty began to grow.
“This used to be a town where you could go to high school and graduate, and go work at Caterpillar, buy a nice home and send your kid to college and be comfortable. By the late 1980s, early ’90s, none of that was true,” Bolden said.
“The people who could afford to move away, did. And people were just struggling. There’s a direct correlation between poverty and crime, poverty and gangs. That’s what it is. So our neighborhood was going through some things.”
About 40 children and teens attend the center’s after-school program, where they find homework help, a hot meal and positive role models. Most hail from low-income families.
“Their parents can’t afford child care, can’t afford to pay somebody $150 a week to watch their kids. If you’re trying to survive on the minimum wage, you can’t afford it,” Bolden said.
Recent spike in shootings
Last month’s shooting of 20-year-old Jourdyn Williamson at Second and Richards street was hard to swallow for the staff and children at the center.
“Jourdyn grew up in this building,” Bolden said. “Her little brother and little sister still go here. Jourdyn aged out a few years ago.”
One of Williamson’s younger siblings was picked up last week from the center by her older brother – a lanyard with Williamson’s photo secured around his neck.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, a blast of gun shots rang out in a drive-by shooting one block north of Warren-Sharpe while Bolden and staff wrapped presents at the center.
Terion D. Steward, 21, was killed when he and his 15-year-old brother were ambushed in the drive-by. Gang crossfire is fairly common in the area, but Bolden and the residents are far from numb to the thought of the young man tragically shot.
“[It was] 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. And he was killed,” Bolden said.
Joliet’s Neighborhood Oriented Policing Team was launched in 1991 as a response to increasing gang violence in the area, Joliet Police Chief Brian Benton said. A fresh face on the Joliet police force at the time, Benton was the first NOPT officer assigned to patrol the area.
Neighborhood gang conflicts have surged over the last couple of months, he said, although it’s nowhere near the height experienced in the early 1990s.
“I think we had 22 murders in the city [in 1991]. We only had 75,000 people at the time,” Benton said. “Now, we average nine murders in a city of 147,000.”
Still, the recent increase in shootings – fatal or not – is a reminder that there’s much work left to do. The center plays a major role in curbing crime, Benton said.
“It’s played a central role in stabilizing the south end for quite some time now,” Benton said. “It helps us build trust in the community.”
Safe haven on the south side
Bolden strives to build healthy relationships with the community, including teens who tend to get in trouble.
“People don’t break in here. Our murals outside never get defaced. We might have teenagers in gangs, but their younger brothers and sisters are in here. Or they were in here … so we don’t have an adversarial relationship with them,” she said. “That’s really important.”
Some of the volunteers are there to earn court-ordered community service hours. Derek Guardiola, 29, of Joliet stocked the center’s food pantry shelves Friday – his way of earning hours.
He said he’s already a third of the way into a required 300 hours. But once that’s over, he said he wants to stick around to help.
“It’s only been about a month, but I love it here,” Guardiola said.
It’s goes to show, Bolden said, that in all the years the center has been open, one message has never wavered: “Our doors are open.”
“It’s important for them to know when they are ready to change what they’re doing, they know where to go to change. So many kids end up in gangs because they don’t know what else to do. Because they can’t figure anything else out. It’s the only thing they see,” Bolden said. “It’s important to us, also, to not exclude them, to make them feel welcome. We’re here. You don’t have to be doing what you’re doing. Come inside.
“It’s important that they take ownership, that they feel protective of this place and of the kids in this place,” Bolden added.
The city recently donated two large vacant lots to the east of the building to Warren-Sharpe. Volunteers and the children are turning the area into a community garden to further transform the neighborhood.
Once built out, the garden is one way Bolden’s reach can extend beyond the center’s four walls. The fruits and vegetables will help feed children during summer programs and anything additional will serve families through the food pantry program.
It’s a way to carry out her mother’s legacy, she said.
“My mother said to me, in the very first summer in 1991, ‘OK, look. I need you to go down to the center. Just this summer.’ She said, ‘I swear to God I will find a director,’” Bolden said. “By September of that year, you couldn’t have taken that job away from me. I love the kids so much.”