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Hillside Community Center creates champions



Sometimes life has a funny way of bringing things around full circle.

When he was growing up, Terrell Brown, 26, went to Hillside 
Community Center most days to play basketball. The courts at the center and neighboring Memorial Park were his “safe haven.”

Brown says playing on the courts in his community was a privilege. Parks staff traded him court time for service, like helping the elderly or serving food at the food program. Joan Clemons, now Hillside’s director, recalls with a chuckle, “[Brown] would come to the center and say, ‘Oooh Ms. Joan, can I please, please get on the court?’” And, she’d respond, “OK Terrell, sweep the gym floor and you can get on.”

Even after he had completed the assigned task, Brown says he’d have to wait his turn. “Kenny Callum Jr., my brother Kenny Edwards, and uncle Gene Edwards [dubbed by the Gazette as one of the best boys’ basketball players in the history of the Pikes Peak region], and all those talented guys from the South Side, they didn’t let me on the court until I was ready,” he remembers. “... When they came, I had to sit back and watch until I grew enough into my body to get out there and have a meaningful run-in.”

Today, Brown is known all over the city for his work at Hillside. As a senior program associate with El Pomar Foundation’s Fellowship, he created Hillside Connections, a youth basketball program that serves kids from his neighborhood and surrounding areas. The program now hosts clinics and drills for kids who face socioeconomic challenges, many of whom come from single-parent homes.

In 2017, Brown won the Mayor’s Young Leader Award for Innovation in Sports and Wellness. Brown says he recently accepted a position as a multicultural student success coach for Pikes Peak Community College and hopes to further his impact by helping increase the retention rates of students of color in their first years of college.

Brown’s successes speak volumes about the neighborhood where he grew up — Hillside incubates champions. Brown’s story is also a perfect example of what the city’s community centers are meant to do.

E.D. Rucker, a city parks and recreation employee for 29 years and the first Hillside director, says before the center was opened in April 1990, the neighborhood was mostly served out of an old dairy building on El Paso Street.
At the time, the city wanted to build a community center on the Westside even though Rucker says the city had ignored the Hillside section of town.

“Of course kids could sign up for youth sports programs,” he says, “... to provide the kids with some kind of recreational outlet.” But coming from Southern California, Rucker says it would vex him that Hillside’s kids didn’t benefit from the city’s “beautiful programs.”

Probably because if you couldn’t pay, you couldn’t play.

Rucker says building the center was an uphill battle — many felt building a community center in a part of town where it was likely to be vandalized was a waste of resources. On the other side, Rev. Promise Lee (Cover, Dec. 26), Katharine Joyce Carpenter and Rev. Milton Proby were the most prominent voices in the city advocating for a center in Hillside, Rucker says. Rucker 
credits Lee for his persistence.

In the process of mobilizing neighborhood voices, Rucker says he learned a valuable lesson from Fannie Lee (Rev. Lee’s mother), an area resident of over 60 years: Leadership comes from inside a neighborhood, not outside.

Once the decision was made to build Hillside, Rucker says the city looked for creative ways to pay for it. “The city was able to fund the building of the community center by selling municipal bonds, which was quite innovative at the time.”

Today, Hillside, which saw 35,300 visits in 2018 and recently opened the city’s first youth bike park, does a little bit of everything to meet the needs of its neighbors. In addition to regular programming, it’s a space to host weddings, birthday parties, graduation receptions, senior lunches and preschool classes.

Clemons says over the years, neighbors have worked hard to make sure the Hillside neighborhood isn’t known just for its socioeconomic status or crime stats. She says Hillside, home to multiple generations of families, is connected to and invested in its future. “I’ve been here almost 19 years, we have another staff [member] that has been here almost 20 years,” she says. “I have siblings that have been here seven and 12 years, and I have [other staffers] that started as participants, and then went on to be volunteers, and they are still here, and they are bringing their kids here.”

Among those kids, she says, is the next Promise Lee, or Katharine Carpenter or Terrell Brown: “Here’s to the area’s next great champions!”

Note: This is the fourth part in our series on the city’s vibrant community centers.

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