- Associated Press - Monday, October 3, 2016

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) - Jayden Ruiz offered a quick, simple response when asked why he was so happy to again have a gym at Trumbull Gardens.

“I didn’t have somewhere safe,” said Ruiz, 11.

Trumbull Gardens. The deceptive name is better suited to suburbia - neighboring Trumbull - not a troubled low-income housing development on Trumbull Avenue in Bridgeport’s North End.

Just over a year ago, gunmen opened fire on a crowd there, killing one, injuring eight, and helping to tilt the heated mayoral race to Joe Ganim, with his outreach to poorer residents and promises of hiring more cops.

So no, Ruiz was not exaggerating. Young Trumbull Gardens residents like himself need a safe haven outside of school. The recently reopened gym and community center is providing it, and not simply because of the popular basketball court.

“Come sign up right here, and just hang around for a little bit,” Karen Bracey, head of the Gardens’ residents association, urged the crowd that showed up at the facility recently.

The event marked the kickoff of a new collaboration with Housatonic Community College downtown. Faculty will be available Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at the gym from 3:30 p.m. until 6 p.m. to tutor first-grade students through high schoolers in reading, writing, math and science.

“Our goal is to get you to the next grade and, if you’re in high school, make sure you have all the tools to leave high school to go on to college,” Earl Graham, Housatonic’s director of admissions, told the group seated on the bleachers.

Ruiz, for example, wants to eventually earn a degree in engineering.

Graham added of Housatonic’s commitment to the endeavor, “The president of the college is here. And that says a lot.”

That president, Dr. Paul Broadie II, told the crowd: “We’re here - and this is very important - we’re here because we believe in you (and) your potential for success.”

They are not alone. The gym and community center was shuttered for about a year due to budget cuts within the Bridgeport Housing Authority, which manages Trumbull Gardens. The building reopened in June for the summer, thanks to pressure from residents, Ganim - who won last year’s mayoral race - and other politicians.

“Mr. Byers kept hee-ing and haw-ing,” said Bettie Cook, president of the Housing Authority’s resident advisory council, referring to George Lee Byers, the authority’s recently departed executive director, who inherited the agency’s financial woes when he was hired in October 2014. “Finally we got it open.”

Byers was the third person to hold that challenging position of executive director in three years - part of the turmoil that has hurt the quality of life in authority developments.

A group of volunteers has stepped in at Trumbull Gardens to not only keep the gym and community center doors open year round, but to make sure there are organized activities awaiting those who enter. Chief among the caretakers is the sweet and stern Bracey, who has lived at the Gardens “off and on for just about 60 years.”

“I am here every day,” she said as those at a tutoring event gobbled up the pizza they had earned for their attentiveness.

“Monday it’s closed, but I’m in here sweeping the floor, cleaning the bathrooms,” she said.

“I need the center open for my children,” Bracey said as she stopped a little boy from running onto the court with a pizza slice in his hand.

Patty Brown, who was at the gym recently with her 2-year-old son, also has a daughter, 15, who plays basketball. Brown lives in the Trumbull Gardens neighborhood and said having the gym open made a noticeable impact this summer on the number of young people in the streets.

“They come to play,” she said. “It’s a good thing.”

Bracey emphasized that the gym is about more than sports. There is the tutoring and a computer room. She is planning a “Motown Review”-style musical show and hopes to start a pottery class.

“I want to expose my children to other things,” Bracey said.

Including how to act responsibly. A hand-printed sign on the wall makes the rules clear in marker: “No swearing - this includes the ‘N’ word. No fighting. No pants sagging. Respect everyone. Have manners.”

Despite the other activities available, basketball is a big draw. And that is where Craig Davis comes in. An ex-housing authority employee, Davis agreed when Bracey asked him to volunteer to help at the gym.

“She said, ‘I need you to to come back here and do something for these kids,’ ” Davis recalled.

So he ran a summer youth basketball program for fifth- through 12th-graders, paid for with fundraising and some of his own money.

“No kid paid any money to play,” Davis said.

He said he will be asking a modest fee of older players, ages 17 to 30, participating in the night basketball games running twice weekly from 9 p.m. to midnight. Those games also kicked off recently.

“This is the only kid-safe haven they have in this community,” Davis said.

He added that, so far, any problems with violence at Trumbull Gardens have remained outside of the gym, a sign of the respect the community has for the facility. But then Davis superstitiously found some wood to knock on, just to make sure he would not be proven wrong.

There was a brief reminder recently of the realities of life in low-income housing when Robin Avant, an assistant biology professor at Housatonic, introduced herself to the audience.

Avant said the tutoring sessions were not just about education; faculty could also simply be friendly faces available to talk. She stressed this as she turned from the rows of children seated on the bleachers to a handful of teenagers who had stopped their basketball game to listen in.

Maybe they have had a friend who died, or know someone who is struggling with drugs, Avant suggested.

“Do you hear me? Yes?” Avant said. “Know that we are truly here for all of you guys.”

___

Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide