Allentown youth center: our vision for new community hub – The Morning Call

When 2021 was approaching, people cursed 2020 and said they looked forward to the new year, mostly due to the turmoil the pandemic caused. Yet, in the words of Yogi Berra, it’s “deja vu all over again.”
As we start another new year, I have chosen to be grateful. As the new executive director of a $30 million nonprofit, I do not take that for granted.
My predecessor spent 40 years creating programs to help lift people out of poverty. He and I have much different styles, but I am thankful for all Alan Jennings did to make Community Action Lehigh Valley the organization it is today.
Despite the past year’s challenges, CALV was poised to help the business community by delivering almost $250 million in COVID-19 emergency grant funds through our Rising Tide Community Loan Fund.
Through our Second Harvest Food Bank, we distributed over 10 million pounds of food to families who faced food insecurity. We provided almost 24 thousand boxes of nutritious food to low-income seniors through the PA Senior Food Box Program.
We helped new farmers get access to land, equipment and business startup assistance at The Seed Farm, our farm business incubator program.
We served 290 students in Bethlehem, Allentown and Easton in our Generation Next program, a college-readiness program designed to increase access to opportunities that will further their education.
Our Housing Counseling program helped save 12 families from foreclosure and assisted 45 others in purchasing new homes — yes, even during a pandemic. We’re working with Lehigh and Northampton counties, as well as the cities of Bethlehem and Allentown to improve the housing stock and create affordable housing throughout the Lehigh Valley.
We are also poised to roll out an initiative called “Color Outside the Lines,” to engage the Lehigh Valley in conversations about race and ethnicity that will strengthen our community and which leaves no one behind.
We do amazing things. I am hoping to do so much more.
I recently told a story about how, as a child, we had to sell candy bars for our school. It was a great way to raise funds.
When I look at the lack of funding in the Allentown School District, I understand. Two young men saw my sister and me carrying our boxes of chocolate bars and said that they should rob us and take our candy. We took off running.
About a block away was the Rec Center. It was a recreation center where we played basketball, did our homework, learned archery and other sports; but most of all, it was where we felt safe.
Growing up, I didn’t always feel safe. I spent years going to multiple homes because both parents passed away before I left middle school.
Thank God my father emphasized the importance of education as a way to escape poverty. He would have loved our Generation Next program.
Even in the foster homes, I hit the books. It wasn’t easy. There were homes in which I felt I had to sleep with one eye open. But before I laid my head down, I always made sure my homework was done.
Children who grow up in poverty aren’t always able to focus on education. They are often just trying to survive. If you’re hungry, it is difficult to concentrate on math or science.
If that person who drinks too much is coming home soon, you’re focused on ways to be perfect so they don’t get upset. Safety comes in spurts. You take what you can get.
Community Action is embarking on building a Youth Center in Allentown. Yes, there are already scattered places in Allentown for youth to learn and play.
But our vision is a one-stop shop with:
· tutors to help with homework (before they can play);
· a comprehensive safe haven with turf fields for soccer and football;
· courts for basketball and volleyball;
· a recording studio for students to create/record their own music;
· trade workshops to introduce students to a variety of vocational trades;
· theater space to engage students in theatric productions;
· space for dance classes that include ballet, jazz, hip-hop, etc.;
· a video and multimedia lab;
· a lounge, game and snack area;
· and an expansive community space with satellite offices for other nonprofits and agencies.
If we want safe neighborhoods, we must invest in the safety of our children. Like me, they will remember what helped make them thrive. They will remember what made them feel safe.
Like me, they will grow up to want to help others.
Dawn Godshall is executive director of Community Action Lehigh Valley, a nonprofit organization that operates a wide range of programs designed to improve the quality of life for low-income people in the region. For more information about its programs and services, go to: