Mama Madison: A visit to the East Madison Community Center

The heart of the neighborhood

My kids always protest accompanying me on errands. They have an understandable beef. Yes, it's true, as they claim, that I have a distinct talent for turning what should be a five-minute stop for a gallon of milk into an hour-long excursion.

It's not that I'm indecisive when it comes to 1% vs. 2% milk. The problem is that I'm too talkative. When I enter a store, bank or coffee shop within a two-mile radius of my house, it's pretty darn likely that I'll run into someone I know. And I'll always have something to chat with them about. It's one of the things I love best about Madison; being part of a tight-knit community filled with familiar faces.

But there are times when living in an extended village, even one I adore,can start to feel a bit claustrophobic. And every so often I get the itch to have an anti-Cheers experience. To go where no one knows my name. I want to see and meet new and different people. I want to push both my geographic and social boundaries.

But leaving town isn't always practical. And more importantly, it isn't really necessary. Because there are entire parts of Madison, in my fifteen years of living here, I've never been to. Entire neighborhoods and communities I never knew existed.

And these places, as I had the good fortune to find out last week, while off my beaten path at least, can be truly extraordinary.

This past Thursday, I headed north on Wright Street. I had previously had absolutely no idea where Straubel Street was -- the right turn I needed to take to get to the East Madison Community Center, where I'd been invited to take a tour. Yes, I was a mere twenty-minute drive, in traffic, from my near west side home. But I felt worlds away.

I was greeted at the door by Tom Moen, who has served as executive director of what he likes to call "Madison's best kept secret", for the past 39 of the center's 47 years. Located in the middle of the subsidized Truax Park apartment complex, EMCC, with its vast array of offerings for kids, seniors and everyone in between, is unquestionably the heart of the neighborhood.

While checking out the impressive 20,000-square foot facility, I couldn't help but be impressed by the sheer amount of programming the small staff (four full-time and four part-time employees) is able to pull off. The Center offers Boys and Girls Development Groups, summer day camp, and an "Alternatives to Violence" program. There is a twice monthly food pantry, parenting classes and the "First Impressions" program where ex-offenders can get stabilized and receive a free suit for interviews. The Center also hosts talent shows, the popular Kids Cafe, and acts as home base for the Madison Breakers Dance Crew, recently named best in town at the Madison Hip Hop Awards. And that's only the tip of the programming iceberg.

Moen is quick to point out that there is no way the staff could pull all this off alone. There are hundreds of volunteers, many from the neighborhood, that are totally invested in the center. They tutor and cook meals. And many of the kids who take part in the center's youth programs are able to transition into paid positions as teens.

As Tom and I walked through the cheery space that housed the afternoon Headstart program, the lunching preschoolers all shouted "Hi Tom" to him. They were excited to see his unquestionably familiar face. But most of the kids politely ignored me. There was one little boy though, probably four at most, who leaned over and asked me what my name was. And when I replied, he gave me the kind of smile that had me, for a nanosecond, considering another baby. There is no question the community center and its surroundings are their own, extraordinary extended village. And I felt at home.

So maybe next time I want the kids to come with me to the grocery store, I'll offer to take them to Woodman's East or the south side Copps. I need to make it a point to venture out of our home zone more often. But we probably shouldn't go to the shopping center closest to the East Madison Community Center. Because, once again, it might take too long.

I, after all, now have a four-year-old friend in the neighborhood. And many more potential friends off Straubel Street.

Sorry, Tom. Your secret is out.

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