- Associated Press - Sunday, February 2, 2014

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) - The Dennison Memorial Community Center was a sanctuary for Lance Lopez, an alum who nowadays dreams of becoming a New Bedford cop.

“Growing up and being here was a major game-changer in my life,” said Lopez, 28, volunteering at the center on a recent Friday afternoon.

“It kept me away from the stigma of being on South First Street, where your best friends are either in jail or passed away over the years. This has always been my mainstay, kind of like an oasis for me.”

The “oasis” metaphor fits well in the neighborhood where Dennison is located, one of the city’s crime hotspots for many years. It’s calmer today than it was just a few years back, Dennison staff agreed, but for many of the 500 kids who come to the center after school, it’s one of the only spaces where they find stability.

“I don’t know where I would be without Dennison,” Lopez said.

The Dennison Center has been a South End mainstay further back than anyone can remember, founded in the 1850s as a center for immigrants come to toil on the boats, docks and mills of New Bedford.

These days the center primarily serves as an after-school program, open after school Monday through Friday and all day long during summer and school vacations.

Pouring through the center’s doors as school lets out - and many staying until doors close at 7:45 p.m. - “Dennison kids” run excitedly between activities like basketball, billiards, video games and ping pong. A corps of volunteers and staff are all around, the core of whom have been at the center for three decades.

“I’m as goofy as most kids,” said a smiling Sean Hargraves, 59, Dennison’s executive director. “If they see me go out with the orange goggles on they know we’re gonna have a Nerf gun fight.”

Always ready to share a laugh or a story, Hargraves is a salt-of-the-earth New Bedford native who has led the center since 1982. With snow white hair and eyes shining beneath bushy eyebrows, he’s a beloved figure inside the building he helped build.

“It’s like a kid’s new neighborhood,” he said proudly.

Most of the approximately 500 Dennison kids come from the West and South ends. Hargraves estimated that they are about 50 percent Latino, 25 percent Cape Verdean and 25 percent white. At least 75 percent come from poverty-stricken homes, some with parents who lack responsibility.

“Over the years we have had some parents whose first priority may not be their children’s education or care,” Hargraves said euphemistically.

“It’s a bigger role you get than Mr. and Mrs. Smith dropping their kids off and coming back properly. We become involved so much in their lives. But when they come here at least they know they’re here.”

Like the city of New Bedford, Dennison has a rich history. At the entry of the building is a Melville-era photo of the center’s founder, the Rev. Tristan Dennison.

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