Arturo Ambriz volunteers at the Vera Court Neighborhood Center's Baseball & BBQ event at Warner Park on Thursday.
As the seats in Warner Park's baseball stadium -- perhaps better known as the Duck Pond -- slowly fill Thursday night, a knot of north side residents gather at the Park's shelter a few hundred yards away for the Vera Court Neighborhood Center's annual Baseball & BBQ fundraiser, kicking off a summer of community programming.
The center uses events like Baseball & BBQ to foster community involvement and to confront some of the challenges, like violence and poverty, facing the neighborhood. Patrick Schrank, an employee of the center, has noticed a concerted response to the violence in the neighborhood in the past two years.
"There's definitely been a reaction to that, and there's a lot of positive stuff going on on the north side," Schrank says.
Tom Solyst, executive director of the Vera Court Neighborhood Center, explains that the neighborhood's response has been focused on shifting the conversation towards community development. He says the neighborhood hopes to change the perception of violence by creating a supportive and proactive community through gatherings like Baseball & BBQ.
"There's a lot of nice community-based programming on the north side," Solyst says.
In expanding its community reach, the center seeks to embrace the diversity of the area, creating a network of supportive volunteers.
"Vera Court is an incredibly diverse area," Schrank says. "It's this sort of web, because a ton of people come together, some people who come to the center, some people who volunteer there, some people who donate to it or partner with it."
The diversity in the area allows bilingual programs, like the center's Latino Academy Workforce Development Program, to flourish. Serving over 500 adult learners, the program offers courses in GED preparation and English as a Second Language.
"There are a lot of motivated Latino adults who take advantage of what we have to offer," Solyst says.
The center also reaches out into the working community through Madison College, partnering with the school in order to offer an array of job placement and skills classes to young adults. This summer, Madison College professors will be teaching GED preparatory classes through the center and kids attending Vera Court's summer camp will be touring the school's science labs during a series of field trips.
Surrounding businesses have joined in the effort to improve the community, as well.
"We've got people getting their first jobs and internships through partner programs like the Mallards'," Solyst says.
The center's focus right now, though, is summer camp. With 150 children attending, the day camps will be bustling and each day offers some new way of interacting with the community. As the center gears up for field trips and craft projects, Solyst emphasizes a more peaceful and positive view of the north side.
"I find it very safe." Solyst says. "There's occasional violence in a lot of places in Madison. I wouldn't say that the north side... it's not any more violent than any other part of town."
Schrank is also working to bring a more positive perspective to the area and is especially fighting against stereotypes of youth violence.
"There's an incredible energy that we see every day from the young people, the teenagers that we work with," Schrank says. "I've seen a lot of great development with young people."
And Schrank is optimistic about the potential he sees in the kids involved in Vera Court's programs.
"I think if we can create spaces that don't stifle them, and tap them into the business community and the creative community, that goes a long way," Shrank says. "I think it would be wrong to characterize young people by violence, or the north side by violence. There's a lot of great stuff going on."