MANCHESTER, NH – Building on Hope, a volunteer organization that helps non-profits achieve their immediate dreams of expansion and renovation, announced Wednesday that they have selected the Manchester Police Athletic League on Beech Street as the 2016 recipient of an extreme makeover.
Yes, it’s a worthy organization with all the qualifications – old, outdated building, full of potential, a true community-based lifeline at the heart of an underserved area of the city.
But it’s even more compelling than that, says Building On Hope co-chair Jonathan Halle.
The MPAL Center is truly a model for what the country needs right now – hope in the kind of place where police officers and youth from a range of economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds find common ground.
MPAL is a bridge for the kind of gaps that have swallowed public trust whole these days, following the wave of police-involved shootings that too often have been followed by community unrest and expressions of mistrust for law enforcement.
Although nowhere near perfect, Manchester Police Department has worked hard to create meaningful connections with community members, and the MPAL building often serves as a hub, whether its kids getting into a boxing ring with a cop, a community diversity discussion, or busloads of senior citizens celebrating after a holiday lights tour.
“We had 20 applications and what we looked for was the structure of the organization, we looked for the impact they have on the neighborhood and we looked at the condition of the building, so it’s multifaceted,” said Halle, of Warranstreet Architects of Concord.
“But clearly, in these times with police being in the news – and everything seems to be negative, this is a very positive thing that the police give back to the community,” Halle said. “On our second meeting here one of the boys talked about how this place has affected his life. I walked out crying. It’s a pretty amazing program.”
This project will be one of the most ambitious for the volunteer organization, which has been in the business of granting extreme makeovers using an army of skilled workers and a big pile of donations over the past seven years. [Click here to see previous projects completed by Building On Hope.]
On Wednesday Mayor Ted Gatsas announced the city would get the fundraising effort started with a $25,000 boost from the Community Improvement Program.
Once the fundraising phase of the project is complete, it will be possible to figure out the scope of the renovation, said Halle, which is planned for mid-2016. He estimates it could exceed $1 million. One of the main goals is to create a floor where there is currently a suspended drop ceiling in the far reaches of the four-story century-old building, formerly St. Cecelia’s church hall. That would allow them to move the ginormous mat used for martial arts training upstairs, and free up space for other activities.
A commercial kitchen is also on the short list of upgrades, said Halle, plus electrical and other upgrades to bring the building up to code, and possibly a new roof.
The Manchester Police Athletic League, located at 409 Beech Street, opened its doors in February of 2004. Three years later the building was dedicated to the memory of Officer Michael Briggs who was killed in the line of duty in 2006. The building was renamed the Michael Briggs Community Center in 2007.
Since its inception, the MPAL center has been a resource and refuge for thousands of city youth, allowing them to establish a stronger sense of self while making meaningful connections with caring mentors, who just happen to be police officers, says Lt. Brian O’Keefe, who is executive director of the community center.
Services at the MPAL center are free to all kids ages 5 and older, and include boxing, judo, aikido, wrestling classes and homework assistance.
“I had the pleasure of working in the facility for the first six years and can attest to the fact that many of our inner city youth have been given the tools to succeed in life because of the police athletic league. Personally, it has been the most rewarding part of my career,” said O’Keefe.
“Maybe I’m biased, but I can’t think of a better place for the kids to have an opportunity to succeed than the police athletic league, and Building on Hope is making that possible,” O’Keefe said.
Officer John Levasseur lingered after the kick-off celebration, talking with O’Keefe and two former MPAL kids who have grown up nicely – and returned to volunteer, Victor Rodriguez, 24, and G. Ortiz Perez, 23.
“We grew up on the same street together,” said Rodriguez, who started coming to MPAL about 10 years ago along with Perez, where their friendship grew.
Perez has earned a degree in criminal justice and aspires to be a police officer. Rodriguez is working on a dual psychology/education degree. Both of them continue to volunteer daily at MPAL.
They spoke briefly during the Building On Hope presentation, to underscore the positive residual effects of MPAL’s programming.
“It really changed my life,” said Perez. “That’s really all I can say.”
Officer Levasseur, a former boxer, said his life was also changed by the program.
“I came here to volunteer with the kids because of the boxing – I wanted to give something back. Then I met Lt. O’Keefe. I had no real direction – I was doing masonry, building chimneys at the time. I still had a dream of being a boxer,” Levasseur said.
“But when I came here I found a home. It opened my eyes to the difference police officers can make in someone’s life, and so I decided to become a police officer,” Levasseur said. He is now the MPAL coordinator, and continues to be a boxing coach.
He spoke about one of his newer students who comes every day to the MPAL center. He says the boy spent the first 13 years of his life sitting on the couch playing video games. “He’s here every day now, and he’s getting in shape,” says Levasseur. “He’s hooked.”
Levasseur makes regular school visits, called Cops and Kids events, as a way of promoting the services at MPAL.
“My heart is really with this place. It’s a dream come true for me,” Levasseur said. “What I find most rewarding, especially, are the kids who don’t have fathers around. They really look up to you, and they listen to what you have to say. I feel like I am making a difference every day I’m here.”
Building On Hope and MPAL are seeking help from community partners to help complete this project. Tax-deductible contributions, volunteer commitments or donations of materials are all welcome and needed. For more information, visit buildingonhope.com.