In a community plagued by guns, gangs and grief, the Peace Corner Youth Center
is an oasis. Dominican University students are serving as unique role models in this struggling Austin neighborhood.
In Austin, parents send their children out the front door like young soldiers going off to war, praying they’ll return safe, knowing some will be lost along the way. Founded in 2002 by Father Mauizio Binaghi, the Peace Corner functions as a trench in the midst of a warzone.
“When I walk [to the Peace Corner] by myself, I’m really, really scared that I’m going to be snatched or taken by someone I don’t know,” 10-year-old Azointe Hughes said as his brown eyes began to gloss with tears and his already timid voice began to tremor with terror. “I’m frightened. Most of the time, I worry that something bad is going to happen to me or to someone I know.”
Sebastian Longstreet, a Dominican sophomore, i
s the youth supervisor and outreach program director at the Center. At a time when Azointe’s parents and older brother were all incarcerated, Longstreet took the boy into his home and under his wing, earning him the affectionate, honorary title, “Uncle.”
At the impressionable age of 12, Longstreet’s own father was incarcerated, forcing him to abandon the naivety of childhood. Not yet a teenager, he had to become a man, to help his mother pay the bills. He tried to find a job, but the only employers who didn’t laugh at him were drug dealers, the only place that didn’t care about child labor laws was the streets. Twelve-year-old Sebastian Longstreet turned to a life of crime.
“I remember seeing the guys on the corner with a lot of money and I remember wanting to be like them. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Longstreet said. “Our lights were cut off, our gas was cut off. We didn’t have food in our refrigerator. I needed to be a part of it.”
At age 17, Longstreet was arrested on drug-related charges. His lifestyle had finally caught up with him. He was sentenced to two years in prison. A blessing of sorts, Longstreet’s stint as a convict provided ample time for him to think and reevaluate his life. In 2010 when he was released back into the Austin community, Longstreet was no longer a boy trying to be a man—he was a man trying to be a role model.
“I didn’t want to go back to prison. I came to the Peace Corner because I knew I couldn’t go back to the streets and this was the only other place willing to accept an ex-felon,” Longstreet said. “I want to do something positive for my community. The gang recruitment age is getting younger and younger—around here, kids are joining gangs as early as fifth grade. I’m here to tell them that I’ve been down that road and it’s not the way to go.”
Because of the University’s close ties—and short distance—to the Peace Corner, Longstreet decided to further his education at Dominican. He plans to take over the Peace Corner as executive director and to one day open his own business fixing computers. Longstreet and student volunteers from Dominican leave their footprints in the road less traveled, giving the children who visit the Peace Corner a divergent lifestyle to consider.
“Some of my old friends are gangbangers now, so I can’t be friends with them anymore,” Azointe said fidgeting in his seat. “I want to go to college and get a degree. Well, I really want to play in the NBA—but I probably won’t make it—so I’ll just start my own business like my uncle.”
MaDonna Thelen, director of community-based learning at Dominican, initiated the University’s partnership with the Peace Corner nearly 10 years ago when she first befriended Fr. Bengahi. Since then, countless students have been sent to volunteer at the Youth Center.
Aside from acting as tutors and mentors for children in Austin, Dominican volunteers also do service in the Center’s career development program, providing job readiness training for adults in the community.
“This particular partnership is a great reflection of how immensely impactful our students volunteering in the community can be. On their own, many of the students would never venture off into Austin,” Thelen said. “But when we send them to the Peace Corner to work, we’re able to form beautiful relationships and build bridges where artificial, restrictive boundaries separate our communities.”
Shaun Kelly, ‘13, began volunteering at the Center as a community-based learning student. As a course requirement, she had to do volunteer work for 20 hours. But after finishing her required hours in one week, Kelly decided to stick around—even after graduating—to help with the girls’ group.
“I did a year-long AmeriCorps internship here [at the Peace Corner],” Kelly said. “After I had gained the trust of the girls, I didn’t want to be just another person who came into their lives only to leave abruptly.”
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