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Fitchburg locals gather at Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce to hear about city’s plans for new teen center

Fitchburg Alder Joe Maldonado talks about the city’s plans for a new teen center. (Photo by Omar Waheed)

Fitchburg residents came out to the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce, 5262 Verona Rd., to hear about the city’s plans for a new teen center on June 17. Attendees heard about work done so far from its team of interns and gave input on what they would like to see with the new space. The project, which has been in the works since 2020, is currently in its second phase where it is gathering feedback on what the teen center should look like before moving into the third phase.

The project initially started in 2020 after the City of Fitchburg sought to create a new space for teens in the city. Fitchburg, with its boom in population, has been looking to expand its public services and has looked to the public for their input. Earlier this year, Fitchburg officials released a report where respondents of a survey overwhelmingly showed interest in increasing property taxes to fund public services.

The new teen center aims to address the population boom, the need to increase public services by residents and provide a space for the older groups of youth — something that Fitchburg Alder Joe Maldonado saw has been lacking.

“One of the things that I’ve seen throughout my own career working with youth… is the funding tends to be limited for spaces for young people and generally tends to skew towards younger kids,” Maldonado said. “However, there’s limited spaces for older youth and the spaces that exist are not proportionate to all neighborhoods. There are many places in the same way there’s food deserts, there’s youth service deserts.”

Maldonado has been working on the project since its start along with a group of teen interns who have done a large swath of the research and planning and have taken to the community to get their input.

The interns spoke with 396 community members for a 2022 survey, part of its first phase engagement study, along with 101 of their peers in the Verona School District, where Fitchburg is part of, and Madison.

“Phase one was ‘Do you like cake?’ Phase two was ‘Okay, what kind of cake? What do you want in the cake,’” said Jahir Durran, an intern with the project.

Durran took feedback along with the other interns to find what teens wanted in the center and how they would get there. Their qualitative analysis found six major areas of interest for the teen center.

Priorities centered on mental health with resources like counselors and hotlines, a judgment-free zone valuing social wellness and empowerment. Education and career services like tutoring, post-secondary support and job/internship opportunities were requested. Additionally, feedback requested a vibrant community that’s both student-led and accessible; ripe with amenities like green, art and sports spaces; and sound operations and trust through minimal adult supervision and consistent upkeep.

Another factor that the teen center aims to address is trust. In the interns’ research, they ventured to the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. They found that restoration of trust towards adults was needed through the creation of the teen center.

“What we discovered is that youth really benefit from adult figures that are culturally competent,” said Ojawsi Pasachee, one of the research fellows. “One of the issues that we noticed is that oftentimes, youth that are in our justice system have been failed by an adult in the past.”

Pasachee, who was an intern and moved into a fellowship role when she enrolled in college, highlights that  

The teen center moved through its second phase, the feasibility study, and is set to finish its third phase by 2026. It currently is workshopping locations as to where to best serve the community with four areas mapped out.

The current examined areas are Fitchburg’s Southdale, North Fish Hatchery Road, Renaissance on the Park and King James neighborhoods. Its ideal location to best serve teens is the King James Neighborhood, Durran said.

The project is currently funded with $3 million from the city of Fitchburg and $1 million from Dane County. The teen center is still working through plans and is combing through community feedback.