The future is here for the Tolleston Opportunity Campus at Gary’s John Will Anderson Boys & Girls Club.
That was the message from the panel of nonprofits invited to the Chancellor’s Commission for Community Engagement at Indiana University Northwest. Crossroads YMCA, The Methodist Hospitals, and Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana updated the audience on their vision that began in 2022.
Their topic, “Tolleston Opportunity Campus: A Partnership and Regional Model for Community Transformation,” unfolded with the addition of IU Northwest as the new partner.
“It must be completed by the end of 2026,” said Jay Buckmaster, Crossroads YMCA President & CEO. “An architect’s RFP is going out in the next 90 days for site work and demolishing parts of the old Tolleston School building. The $30 million project will bring renovations to the remaining building and some new construction.” The JWA Club, the YMCA, and Methodist Hospitals will be under one roof.
Funding comes from three $10 million grants provided by the City of Gary, the Dean & Barbara White Foundation, and Indiana’s Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI).
Although funding was secured early in 2023, the partners took the long road, Buckmaster said. “Before hiring an architect, ordering the tile color and the type of paint, we had to find out what programs and services the people in Gary wanted.”
Common themes resulting from phone calls and online surveys led to 6 community engagement sessions – some held at the Tolleston Club, Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus, and with high school students at 21st Century Charter School.
The partners came up with four areas to focus on – youth development, healthy families, healthy communities, and economic and workforce development.
Drilling down on youth development, Buckmaster said, “ … meant quality childcare, early childhood education, and kindergarten readiness. We talked about the number of kids that pass or don’t pass third grade reading levels.”
In the surveys and engagement sessions, residents suggested programs and services that show the pride they have in their communities and ways to create stronger communities. They asked for more places to do things in the community.
The Tolleston Opportunity Campus is for the entire city, not just for its surrounding neighborhoods on the city’s west side. Connecting communities to the Tolleston Campus is how the university fits in, said IUN Chancellor Ken Iwama.
“We have the resources, our faculty and students, to connect the dots and identify the issues. We will bring the experts out. But the beauty is we’re not going to act like a consultant; we’re not going to leave. We’re here in this community forever,” Iwama said.
“Our work connects the campus to our communities in many different areas,” added Ellen Szarleta, Director of IUN’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE). “Our Community Conversations on K-12 education touch exactly the issues talked about. We have Small Business Training, Senior Universities, and Kids College working directly with the Boys and Girls Club.”
CURE faculty and students worked with Lake County government officials on tax delinquent parcels, getting a law passed that restricted those properties from showing up on county tax sales year after year. “Now, bad actors can’t hold up those parcels and prevent economic development,” Szarleta said.
“We’re ready to work together with Methodist and the YMCA,” said Mike Jessen, Boys & Girls Clubs President & CEO. “The need has never been greater than today, to expand our horizons and expand what we do as an organization.”
“The JWA Club has an average daily attendance of 172 kids. The daily teen attendance is 40, which is one of our strongest clubs in terms of teen attendance,” Jessen said. “And one of our goals as an organization is to bring as many teens as we can possibly bring into the club.”
“This really is something that very much aligns with our mission at Methodist,” said Kim Innes, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development. “We’re trying to take the services outside the four walls of the hospital and embed them in the community. And with the community health needs assessment that we do every 3 years, we will be able to create a strategic plan to make sure we’re rolling out services that are needed.”
“Every community in America will look at us and say ‘this example in northwest Indiana is how communities can collaborate and solve issues collectively,’” Buckmaster said.