Within a seven-minute drive of 50th Street and Ames Avenue live 1,325 young boys. Many are low-income. Many have nothing to do after school, no place to go to stay out of harm's way. An under-the-radar foundation wants to change that and has launched a $12.5 million project to add an after-school center targeted to this at-risk population.
NorthStar Foundation, a five-year-old group with deep-pocketed backers, is announcing plans today to build a place where boys can get tutoring, be mentored and shoot hoops. The 34,500-square-foot building will have two gyms, a climbing wall in a commons area and classroom space.
It will anchor a 14-acre campus for NorthStar on Omaha Home for Boys land. The Home for Boys is leasing the space along its eastern border to NorthStar, which already owns and runs a high-ropes Outward Bound adventure course.
When the NorthStar building opens in April 2014, it will join two other new developments that could make a big difference in this section of north Omaha.
Walmart is spending $30 million and hiring about 250 full-time workers for a new store on the northwest corner of 50th and Ames. And Heartland Family Service is planning an $11 million remodel of the old Park Crest Apartments high-rise at 48th and Sprague Streets, a few blocks away. When finished, the building will serve mothers recovering from addictions.
The projects will benefit one another and help shore up the neighborhood, said Scott Hazelrigg, president of the nonprofit NorthStar.
Launched in 2007, the foundation was designed to serve male youths in northeast Omaha. Heavy-hitters, including philanthropists Susie Buffett and Richard Holland and former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, sit on its board. NorthStar has already raised about 80 percent of the money for the new project.
The foundation helped bring a $300,000 high-ropes challenge course to the east side of the Omaha Home for Boys campus at 52nd Street and Ames Avenue. And it invested about $1.4 million in the immediate area to the east, purchasing the notorious Park Crest Apartments and razing all but one of the buildings. That remaining building is the Park Crest high-rise, sold to Heartland Family Service in August.
Removal of Park Crest buildings was a necessary first step to secure the site. Park Crest was nestled among other apartment buildings that sat between Fontenelle Park to the east and the Omaha Home for Boys campus to the west. The hilly, isolated topography, combined with dead-end streets and densely populated buildings, turned the area into a crime magnet. The city eventually condemned Park Crest, and a number of still-remaining apartments in other complexes have boarded-up windows.
The City of Omaha has committed $250,000 in federal block grant money toward the $860,000 cost of extending 49th Street five blocks, from Ames south to Sprague.
The road would provide access to NorthStar's new building and Heartland Family Services. And it would provide visibility and traffic to those dead-end streets, further securing the area.
“If you're a parent like me, you're not going to let your kid walk even 10 blocks,” said Nicole Nash, who lives about a half-mile from the building site.
Nash's sons — one in junior high and the other in high school — will be too old to use the NorthStar building when it opens. But as a longtime neighborhood resident, as a mother shuttling her sons 100 blocks west to some of the only open basketball courts in the city and as the manager of a youth sports organization, she described a huge need for supervised space.
“A lot of our target kids who are getting in trouble are young boys,” Nash said.
The NorthStar effort aims to do more than provide much-needed gym space and a place to hang out. NorthStar wants to see more at-risk boys graduate from high school.
Using Omaha Public Schools data, Hazelrigg said the organization knows how many adolescent, low-income males there are in the area — 1,325 — and almost exactly how many also lack after-school support.
NorthStar plans to open with group of about 30 boys each in fifth through eighth grades. NorthStar would target academic and other support to students based on their reading, writing and math scores on state proficiency exams. The organization would then track and follow students through high school.
The NorthStar building would be open weekdays from about 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. It would provide support for academics, sports, adventure, arts and job readiness. A soccer/football field will be built next to the building, and participants would be fed dinner.
The center's two gyms would primarily serve the boys in the program, though NorthStar most likely will serve some of the teams in the 460-youth Midwest Trailblazers, a nonprofit youth mentoring organization led by Justin Wayne.
Wayne's eighth-grade boys team practices at three different OPS schools a week, and scheduling is a nightmare because of competing school events.
“We need more facilities,” Wayne said. “We need more things for kids to do.”
Eric Nelson, principal of Omaha's Fontenelle Elementary School, said he's thrilled to see NorthStar target at-risk boys, especially the students from his school who could walk to the new building.
“There's no place for our boys to go,” Nelson said. “Hopefully, it gets them off the streets.”
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