MANCHESTER, NH — The gutting and resurrection of the Manchester Police Athletic League building is more than a success story. It’s a modern-day parable for a city in need of hope.
And so it seems only fitting that this renovated refuge for kids has been built on an actual foundation of hope, buoyed by volunteer sweat equity and powered by community spirit. It now stands as a testament to the power of positive energy, of dreaming big and leaps of faith.
MPAL represents the city’s past, present and future, as a $1 million investment in a safe haven for the city’s most vulnerable children. They will continue to find encouragement here, along with fun, kinship, life lessons and leadership skills, drawn from the police officers who have sworn an oath to serve and protect in an intimate way by participating in MPAL, as their mentors.
Now, thanks to the efforts and upgrades orchestrated by Building on Hope and a small army of community and business volunteers, this place will be able to continue operating into 21st century as a beacon for the next generation of city kids.
The center was selected for renovation because of its mission, serving more than 8,000 kids in Manchester’s inner city. But it’s also a unique place where police officers and a diverse community find common ground – something sorely needed in a world where too often there are stories of law enforcement and communities divided by racial tension and violence.
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Eva Castillo, who serves on the Manchester Police Commission, said she could not feel more pride in her community than she does right now. Her son, Gibran “G” Ortiz-Perez, 24, would not be the man he is today if not for MPAL.
“I adopted him when he was 15. His brothers, they all went down the wrong path. But he found this place. It was here to show him there were other possibilities,” Castillo says.
Ortiz-Perez is one of the many success stories of MPAL. He continues to be engaged with the organization, and says now that the center is completed, he is going to refocus on his personal goal of becoming a Manchester Police Officer.
“I’m overwhelmed by the changes. So many more kids are going to come, for home work help and programs,” Ortiz-Perez says. “This place changed my life. I never touched a drug in my life, and it’s a good feeling to be able to be here for the kids when they need someone to talk to.”
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Although the interior changes are the meat and potatoes, you can’t help but be wowed by the icing on the cake: Two bigger-than-life size murals on the exterior, one of them featuring the image of slain Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs, in whose name and spirit the MPAL community center is dedicated. Splashes of color, design elements and graffiti art speak to the revival of the place, and a beautiful mural just inside the doors features the silhouette of an officer holding a child’s hand underneath the words: Miracle on Beech Street.
Transforming the century-old building into a state-of-the-art community center was a huge undertaking. City Aldermen floated a $500,000 bond in December, guaranteed by MPAL, to allow for fundraising and to encourage donations from businesses, who are able to take advantage of Community Development Finance Authority tax credits.
But beyond the benevolence of its benefactors, Sunday’s big reveal was made possible by a community of caring. Now that the building is high-functioning — including a game room, a homework/study space and an industrial kitchen — it’s up to the community to keep it going, says David Mara, former Manchester Chief of Police, who serves as Chairman of MPAL.
He was removing the white cloth table coverings and helping with the clean-up effort as a handful of kids rambled through, from one end of the room to another. Several adults from the community were invited in for a plate of leftovers as the clean-up crew — including Mara — worked toward restoring the place to the new normal.
“We want to hire a part-time civilian staff member, almost immediately, to help coordinate fundraising and programming, and to connect with local restaurants so we can teach the kids to cook,” Mara says “Building on Hope gave us such a beautiful gift. Now that all the speeches are over, this is what it is.”
Manchester Community Policing Officer John Lavasseur has been part of the renovation process, but he got his first look on Sunday at the finished product along with his MPAL kids.
Lavasseur has a long history with MPAL. He started as a civilian volunteer, just a work-a-day guy and former boxer who wanted to give something back to the community. Meeting Lt. Brian O’Keefe, who was MPAL coordinator at the time, changed the direction of Lavasseur’s life — he saw first-hand the way police officers were able to connect with kids, one-on-one, through athletics and mentoring.
He wanted to be that guy, too, and so he decided to become a police officer, and now serves as MPAL coordinator.
As Lavasseur made his way into the building during Sunday’s big reveal, his emotion was impossible to contain. Several of the kids grabbed him by the arms and led him down to the basement steps, where he got his first look at the fully functional boxing gym and workout space.
Lavasseur had no immediate words, just tears.
Few people know the challenges faced by the MPAL kids quite like Lavasseur does. He knows their personal struggles, but he also knows their capacity to rise to those challenges.
He wraps up a conversation with a trio of adolescent boys, one who is especially anxious to spar in the new boxing ring. “I want to see you here every day,” Lavasseur tells him as the boys disperse toward the indoor picnic spread, provided by T-Bones Restaurant.
Lavasseur says kids who are willing to put in the time are the ones who benefit the most.
“I told him he has to earn it. He is one of those kids who has a lot of struggles, but just like school, if he wants to succeed in the ring he has to put the time in,” Lavasseur says. “I like to give them some incentive to come every day, to put in the time and earn their way into the ring.”
As the party kicked into full swing, Michael Anglin, 16, and Haden Prell, 18, had found a quieter space in the game room, where they were playing chess. Michael says he’s been attending MPAL for a while, and participates in wrestling and judo. He especially likes the renovated community space.
Haden says he used to attend regularly, but stopped coming when life got complicated.
“I used to do judo and boxing, but quit coming to focus on school,” he says. “I definitely want to come back. Quitting was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”
Joskar Bautista, 12, is taking a break, sprawled out on some beanbag chairs in one of the downstairs lounge areas. His boxing name, by the way, is Rainbow.
“Everyone calls me that – it’s because I like to use the rainbow wrist wraps,” he says. He spent much of Sunday testing out the punching bags. “I love it all.”
Christopher Constan, 16, said MPAL is one of the few places kids can come to feel safe in the city.
“I come every day. Now, I won’t want to leave,” says Christopher. “This place helps kids stay away from trouble, and more will come now. They will have judgement-free zone here.”
Alexis Dobson, 13, says she still likes to hang out with her friends on the streets, but with the renovated MPAL space, she expects to spend even more time at the center. She says she likes the three-seat cafe-style space where she was eating a hamburger with friends. As she ate, she studied the plaques on the wall commemorating the four Manchester officers who have died in the line of duty.
“It’s comfortable here. I like sitting in this space,” she says.
Majak Kon, 15, says he’s been coming to MPAL for the past four or five months. He is looking forward to competing in the ring, and training.
“I was hoping they’d put up flags from all the different countries on the walls down here,” says Kon, whose family moved to New Hampshire from Sudan.
“That’s something they can absolutely do,” says Jonathan Halle, co-chair of Building on Hope.
“This is their space. It’s been here for a long time, and boxing and judo speak to a small portion of the kids of this community. Now, it’s a true community center — it’s going to be a game changer — opportunities for programming are unlimited. If they can think it, they can do it,” Halle says.
Every two years, Building on Hope selects a local nonprofit to receive improvements and repairs completed over the course of one week through all-volunteer goods and labors. Fundraising continues via a GoFundMe page, which is aiming for $100,000, in addition to all the materials and labor donated by local businesses, including a recent $25,000 donation from Great NH Restaurants’ Charitable Trust, FEEDNH.org, for the kitchen, a future home for Great NH Kids Can Cook program.
Past projects include:
- 2010: Easter Seals – The remodeling, landscape, redesign and refurnishing of the White House Boys Intensive Residential Treatment Facility. Located in Manchester, this building is home to five boys who, for any number of reasons, cannot live with their families. Many residents here suffer from behavioral problems, learning disabilities and other setbacks. Most have experienced severely traumatic life experiences along the way, but they come to the White House because they are working through those problems and have plans for a better future.
- 2012: Girls Inc. – The Manchester Girls Inc. headquarters was in need of major renovations to better serve the hundreds of girls and their families participating in its programs. The project involved a new roof, an air conditioning system, playground, extensive program enhancements and a completely new kitchen and dining area.
- 2014: Opportunity Networks – At its core, Opportunity Networks in Amherst is committed to providing genuine vocational opportunities and activities that promote life enhancing skills for adults with developmental and acquired disabilities in the Greater Nashua/Souhegan Valley community. The project centered around the ‘dreams’ that the Opportunity Network Board and Staff had to provide additional services and value to their clients. Building on hope provided a fully interactive theatre, library, art space, commercial kitchen, movement room, computer lab, renovated offices and a ‘snoozelen room’.