- 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.

“I think he was one of those fire and brimstone kind of guys - and he looks it doesn’t he?” Hargraves joked, adding that Dennison “hung with Frederick Douglass.”

“I guess I gotta put a little plaque up there.”

When he first started, old neighbors would arrive at the club and pay a quarter in exchange for a towel and a bar of soap and access to the showers downstairs.

“People came to take their weekly bath,” he said.

Hargraves knows that becoming a cop isn’t an unreachable goal for a guy like Lopez. Another Dennison kid, Julio Rivera, is now a New Bedford police officer.

“It was a tough neighborhood but (the Dennison Center) helped everybody stay on the right track,” Rivera said.

Raised in the Ben Rose housing project a block up the street from Dennison, Rivera came from Puerto Rico at age 5 as the youngest of 15 kids. Both his parents were disabled and Rivera said they were “very poor” but provided for the family.

Now 46 and stationed in the South End, Rivera said he’s happy to give back by patrolling the neighborhood.

“I don’t want to forget where I came from so I go there as much as I can.”

Hargraves remembered Rivera and his aspiration of becoming a cop. Reading The Standard-Times one day he came across a cadet program being offered by the NBPD. He passed it along to Rivera and the rest was history.

In 2004 the old building that housed Dennison was torn down to make way for a new, $1 million, 12,000-square-foot facility. Hargraves spearheaded a fundraising effort that would lead to the erection of a new building without a dime from government.

A shining new basketball court was constructed four years earlier. About a third of the gym funds came from government grants.

In spite of the family-like atmosphere at the Dennison Center, things have been difficult where funding is concerned. The center once operated with a budget of approximately $350,000. But Hargraves has been forced to operate with less than $200,000.

Hargraves said because of a loss of state funding, two years ago he and all his staff took a 20 percent pay cut to prevent layoffs - the staff unanimously agreed this was the way to go in anticipation of Hargraves’ decision.

“We’re always just hanging financially,” he said.

Now Hargraves does something that was never necessary before - he spends much of his time writing grant applications.

“That’s just the way we’ve had to learn how to live. … We just don’t have a steady income.”

He said he’d like to return to a $350,000 budget and reverse the once-a-week furloughs he was forced to implement.

“I don’t want to be whining about government giveaways, but they fund a lot of other things,” Hargraves said.

“I just wish they would remember us.”

Twenty-eight now, Krystal Collazo went to the Dennison Center since she was 6. Now her son Denzel goes there - and much of the original staff is still around.

“Dennison was the best part of my life growing up. That’s why I decided to put my son in there,” she said.

Collazo said growing up in the neighborhood kids basically had two choices: hang out in the street or go to Dennison. For her the choice was clear.

“Who knows?” Collazo said. “If I didn’t go to Dennison after school I probably would’ve ended up hanging with the wrong crowd.”

“I think that kids need a place like Dennison to keep their minds off of things they shouldn’t be learning.”

The reality of the neighborhood is more nuanced than to say it’s Dennison or the street corner. Ask any of the center’s veterans and they know multiple Dennison kids who were murdered after leaving. And at least some of it is due to bad decision-making.

And though the darkest days seem to be behind, they’re still not gone entirely. Early on Jan. 16, Patrick Alves, 23, an alum of Dennison Center from an early age who would later have several encounters with the law, was murdered in the North End.

“Part of the problem is over the years it’s been one of the tougher neighborhoods in the city, and we’ve tried to get rid of that image,” said director of recreational activities Joe Gill, who lives in the South End.

“It’s taken a while before the police department has been able to clean up the neighborhood and get the drugs out - but it’s still that image.”

Gill has been at Dennison for 30 years. He jokingly calls himself the “chief cook and bottle washer,” but his duties include such things as running sports activities to serving as the in-house handyman.

“I’ve stayed because it’s a great place to work,” he said, and his three-decade stay here is more testament to that than any words.

Carney Academy student Tavany Spencer, 11, has been coming to Dennison for three years. She takes part in all the activities available - from basketball to video games to hanging out with friends - but one of the most meaningful has been the girls’ group organized last year.

“We learned about how self-esteem works,” said Spencer, a beaming Cape Verdean girl eager to share her thoughts with a reporter.

“It’s how you think, feel and look at yourself. It’s good to have high self-esteem so you’re confident in yourself, so you don’t have to feel bad about yourself.”

Spencer’s self-esteem seems to be in good shape - she aspires to be an actress in movies or on Broadway, and if that doesn’t work out she’ll be a fashion designer, and if not that a teacher.

Many of the kids have lofty goals as to what they want to be when they grow up. Among prospective teachers and dancers are a pair of boys who dream of playing in the NBA, and even one kid who hopes to become a character on the Japanese anime program “Dragon Ball Z.”

Brooke Borden, a third grader at James B. Congdon School, chimed in:

“I love this place because I can do whatever I want.”

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