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Wheelock asks community what it wants for Mattahunt Center

Posted by Cara Bayles  December 8, 2010 05:00 PM

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(Globe filel photo)

An after-school tutoring session at Mattahunt Community Center.

The Mattahunt Community Center in Mattapan could get its pool updated. It could host plays and choir practices in its auditorium. It could welcome not just students, but their parents and grandparents. It could be a collective space, the pulse of the neighborhood.

On Tuesday night, a group of police officers, teachers, neighbors and Wheelock College faculty discussed a host of options for the future of the center.

"The resources are out there," said Judith Alexandre, a community volunteer and a member of the Association for Haitian Women during her group's discussion of how to get the larger community involved in center's sucess. "This community historically has not gotten much. There are a lot of grass-roots groups that have always been here, that have built trust in the community. We need to reach out to them."

The comment epitomized what Wheelock officials are trying to do.

When Mayor Thomas Menino announced in the fall that Wheelock would take over the Mattahunt, some of the neighborhood's leaders, including City Councilor Charles Yancey, criticized a lack of community input in the decision.

In April, city officials announced that budget constraints required they cut staff at eight of Boston's 46 community centers. Subsequently the Boys and Girls Club paid the Mattahunt director's salary.

Since taking charge, Wheelock officials have tried to cultivate community involvement to steer how the college will run programming at the center. The United Way presented the Mattahunt with a $30,000 novelty check last week, meant to bankroll a six-month community engagement process.

Tuesday night's event was the first of five community meetings open to the public, and Wheelock has set up an e-mail address and a voicemail, so residents have several ways to provide input.

The college has also set up a planning committee, that includes officials from the Mattahunt School, Wheelock, and the Boys and Girls Club, as well as local business owners, parents, police, and teachers.

"I wanted to have 10 to 15 people on the committee. We have 25," said Marta Rosa, who is in charge of government and external affairs at Wheelock, and a co-chairwoman on the committee. "That just shows you how much interest there was."

The center also needs an estimated $5 million in capital improvements, according to Rosa, including rehabbing its pool and repaving its basketball courts.

Wheelock will not institute any programming changes until it has received enough community feedback. Right now, the Mattahunt School uses the building until 1:30 p.m. every day, and then the Boys and Girls Club uses it until 5:30 p.m., according to Rosa, who hopes more late-evening programming at the Mattahunt. Wheelock is currently searching for a director to juggle the different groups that want to use the space.

"It's a matter of coordinating different groups, not about replacing existing programs," said Rosa. "We're beginning the conversation here. We're starting to shape programming with the community, and we'll start to see some of their recommendations as early as February."

Several suggestions came out of Tuesday's meeting as attendees split into three groups to discuss topics like "school success," "youth development" and "family support."

The assembled group recommended programming that includes parents. They also suggested intergenerational programs, which would ensure seniors are engaged at the center, and could also to combat a culture that "Americanizes" youth at the expense of their own heritage.

They emphasized promoting extracurricular activities that compliment academics, particularly arts programming, like drama and choir.

Donalee Dixon, a fifth grade teacher at the Mattahunt school, said the center could be used to supplement education, particularly in cultivating a community that rallies around its youth.

"I've been teaching for over 15 years, and it's always a challenge doing that. But having parents really involved makes a huge difference in school success," she said, adding later that adults need to collectively encourage students. "They need support, not just from their parents and peers, but from their teachers, too."

Dr. Adrian Haugabrook, a Wheelock official, was pleased with the meeting, and said it marked the launch of a partnership between the community and the college that would "help frame the what."

"It showed we weren't coming in with an agenda, and put some oomph behind what we've been saying all along, which is that we have no framework. We have ideas, but they need to be tested," he said.

E-mail Cara Bayles at

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