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Unity Community Center Expansion Will Boost Teen Programs, After-School Meals

Ryan Denham
Unity Community Center summer campers participate in a gardening session on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Normal.

The Unity Community Center in Normal will add more teen programs and improve how it serves after-school meals through an upcoming expansion project.

The center on Orlando Avenue opened in 2003 in hopes of curbing a spike in gangs and crime in the area. Fifteen years later, Unity will expand into the former Normal Police substation—closed recently due to budget cuts—right next door.

“Honestly, it’s great news,” said Anna Birsa of Bloomington, a teen teacher at Unity’s summer camp, which hosts 15 to 25 kids each week. “Unity Community Center does so much outside of youth programs, like helping the surrounding area. Expanding that and getting more resources for that is so great.”

Unity is a multicultural center that provides programming for youth from families with limited resources. It takes over the substation lease July 1, with renovations expected to be completed in early September.

Normal Police substation building
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Unity will expand into the former Normal Police substation—closed recently due to budget cuts—right next door.

The additional space will free up more room for teen programs, with four big staff cubicles relocating to the old police substation, said Bobbie Lewis-Sibley, who oversees Unity as county director for University of Illinois Extension serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford counties. The teens themselves will help choose what programs are added, she said.

Unity will also add a much-needed commercial kitchen with a stove, range, and dishwasher, Lewis-Sibley said. Unity serves five after-school meals a week to 50 kids for nine months a year, and their two longtime cooks have been restricted to using microwaves and paper plates.

Not anymore. The new kitchen will also make it easier to prepare food grown in Unity’s large production garden, located just outside its doors. Extension’s registered dietitian could also use the kitchen as a teaching space for the community, Lewis-Sibley said.

Unity is funded through a combination of State Farm Foundation grant, plus county, state, and federal dollars. Its impact is being felt in many ways, including a lower teen crime rate in the Orlando Avenue area, said Lewis-Sibley.

“It’s just not what we think, but there’s research and numbers behind it (from Normal Police),” she said. “Unity plays a very important role in that.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.