The Mattahunt-Wheelock Partnership held a community-wide planning session last Thursday at the Mattahunt Community Center in Mattapan, the final piece of a community outreach strategy meant to determine new kinds of programming to be offered at the center.
The meeting was also the second brainstorming session of the partnership’s Community Engagement Process, capping off a series of events that began last year. “I feel like we are fulfilling a wish list for the community,” said Gareth Kinkead, president of the Colorado Street Citizens Group and co-chair of the Mattahunt Community Planning Committee. “If the city wants to provide for the future, they should keep at the children.”
Under the city’s fiscal year 2011 budget, announced in April 2010, staffers from the Boston Center for Youth and Families were pulled out of eight community centers across Boston, including the Mattahunt. Although the center maintained an after-school program for students at the adjacent Mattahunt School, the staff withdrawal effectively closed the doors of the community center — which houses a gym and swimming pool— to the larger community.
Last fall, the city of Boston and Wheelock College struck a deal that hands management of the center over to Wheelock. By December, the agreement had developed into the Mattahunt-Wheelock Partnership, earning the support of local community leaders, elected officials, and a four-year financial backing from United Way.
In an attempt to include the voices of Mattapan residents in the decision-making process, representatives from Wheelock formed a planning committee and launched a data-gathering plan to find out what types of programming residents wanted. Committee members gathered input from the community by holding surveys, open meetings, and community brainstorming sessions.
With the newly unveiled 2012 fiscal year budget calling for the removal of city staff from five more community centers, some people are viewing the Mattahunt-Wheelock Partnership as a model for across the city.
“I would strongly suggest that this kind of process be expanded to other parts of the city,” said State Rep. Russell Holmes, who was at the meeting. “I feel like this is not being run by the government, but by the people.” Also in attendance were State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry and former State Rep. Marie St. Fleur.
“I think that Wheelock is making a very direct and intentional effort to get voices from the community out there,” said Forry. “There’s a feeling that this is really being done in partnership with the community, instead of just the idea of someone trying to ‘save’ Mattapan.”
In addition to brainstorming ideas for the future of the Mattahunt with residents at Thursday’s event, the community planning committee also released details of 1,000 surveys, which the committee has been handing out and collecting since January. Many of the survey questions had been nailed down at the previous community planning sessions. The surveys, targeting residents from ages 6 and up, were ordered in groups of youth, teen and adult, and were widely distributed through organizations such as the Mattapan Library and the Area B-3 Police Station as well as door-to-door by volunteers. In addition to multiple choice questions, the surveys also featured open-ended components. So far, the group has recovered 750 copies of the thousand it sent out.
Among teens and adults, most respondents supported daily homework assistance at the center. Youth identified math assistance as the top priority. Swimming topped the recommendations for sports activities among the youth, at 33 percent and adults, at 78 percent. Forty-six percent of teens supported swimming as well, running second to basketball with its 47 percent approval.
These results echoed an often-heard desire for a re-opening of the facility’s swimming pool. “I think that this is something that needs to be done,” said Melvin Vierra Jr., a Dorchester resident who grew up in Mattapan and often visited the Mattahunt’s swimming pool in his youth. “Without this center, many of our children will be lost.”
Residents also suggested a wide range of other sports and extracurricular activities from rugby to martial arts to double-dutch, indicating a wide area of interest in sports.
Among other things, 80 percent of those surveyed recommended that the center remain open daily through Saturday. A majority also recommended that the center be open from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Interestingly, the teen and youth respondents were nearly balanced at 50 percent male and 50 percent female, while the adult respondents were overwhelmingly female, at 76 percent, an issue that committee members hope to address in the future.
“There were not a lot of ‘Ah-ha’ moments—mostly confirmation on things we had been hearing early on,” said Marta Rosa, a special assistant to Wheelock’s president and co-chair of the Mattahunt Community Planning committee. While Thursday’s meeting is the last scheduled community-wide meeting in the engagement process, Rosa labeled the findings of the last few months as “preliminary,” and invited residents to participate in the next committee meeting on April 27. According to planners, the next steps involve assessing, as well as making the necessary repairs to, the Mattahunt facilities to meet the requests of the community.
“The money’s tight, so we’re going to have to do our due diligence, and build partnerships between public and private agencies if we want to make sure that this facility is ready to go,” said Rosa. Estimates by Wheelock indicate that the center will need nearly $5 million in repairs and upgrades in the near future. Residents appear to be appreciative of the process so far, and are ready to get the ball rolling on the new programs. Several residents asked for continued involvement and updates throughout the development.
“I feel like this is what the community wants to happen, not that there is someone else coming in trying to convince us that it is a good idea,” said Mattapan Patriots Vice President Walter Applewright. “I’ll be interested to see if this program delivers.”