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W hen Robert “Mush” Hudson was 5, he began attending the New Haven YMCA Youth Center. He played basketball, learned to swim and went to summer camp. Now in his late 40s, sporting a thick beard more white than black, Hudson’s spent the last 20 years paying it forward as a Center employee.

Hudson grew up two blocks away on Day Street, an area where remnants of Kensington Street International—a local street gang that crested in the ’80s and ’90s—still exist. There are public basketball courts on the corner of Day and Chapel, as well as many other spots around the city, but the YMCA’s glassy indoor hoops are often preferred, for more than just the glass. “They feel safer coming here than going anywhere else,” Hudson says.

While the youth center’s facilities aren’t exactly public, per se, anyone from the age of 12 into their mid-20s can drop in from 2:30 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and play basketball, or 3:30 to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, and go swimming—no membership or fees required. Males and females are equally welcome, though attendees tend to be male. “We make sure to give them a safe place to get off the streets,” says Hudson, who coordinates this slice of the center’s activities, dubbed the Walk-In Program.

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To ensure that sense of safety, he and other staffers are friendly but firm. “They’re pretty clear-cut with the youth about ground rules,” says Danielle Williams, the center’s new executive director. For instance, Hudson says, “We don’t allow them to come here with no gang colors on. We make them take off their hats.”

A few walk-in staff members are always in the gym talking with players, joking around and forming relationships but also intervening when there’s a conflict. “We always try to have the guys talk it out—try to make sure they don’t leave here mad,” Hudson says. “We try to teach them that they’re going to end up playing ball with each other again.”

“But,” Williams says, “if you’re not willing to have a peace talk then [we tell them] go cool off for a couple days and come back. A lot of the time the kid will come back the next day and offer an apology.” In a stroke of conflict-resolution genius, Hudson says staff will sometimes put two head-butters on the same team, so that they’ve “gotta depend on each other.”

Besides a place where young people can safely shoot hoops or hash out conflicts, the Walk-In Program also provides a more general perspective on life, and a sense of community. “We always have our big huddles and talk about sports and different things,” Hudson says. “Negative things, positive things, [we] just give the guys a chance to get things off their chest. I think we make it more comfortable for them to talk to us. We don’t judge them. We try to find a solution to help them.”

Williams says the fact that staffers like Hudson also live in the same communities as the kids do and regularly see them on the outside is a major driver of the trust they build on the inside. Recently, Hudson and another staffer attended a middle school basketball championship in which three of their regular walk-ins were competing.

While most of the youth who come in for the Walk-In Program go straight up the stairs toward the center’s two basketball gyms, younger kids usually stick around on the first floor, where the center runs both a state-funded school readiness program and a YMCA after-school program for the under-12 set. While the Walk-In Program is funded by grants, and so is free to all participants, the preschool and after-school programs carry a price tag, quoted on an income-based sliding scale.

While the center tries to provide as much financial assistance as it can, Williams says it’s been significantly harder to balance the ledger of late. In the past year, the Youth Center had its state funding cut by 78%. Other funding sources have also been waning. That means cuts across the board. The pool, which used to be open five days a week during the school year, is now open for three.

But while funding woes may be furrowing the foreheads of adults, the kids don’t seem to notice. When I dropped in on a few preschool classes, singing, games and snack time were proceeding as usual, in a space where the kids’ biggest problem, at least for the moment, was whether a T-Rex can be friends with a unicorn.

New Haven YMCA Youth Center
50 Howe St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 7:30am-6pm
(203) 776-9622
www.cccymca.org/locations/newhaven

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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