Voices of the M.L. Keefe Community Center
By Wynton Borders and Rick Lessard
Along busy Dixwell Avenue in southern Hamden, just between Ali Baba’s Fusion and Barbara’s Restaurant, sits a large brown brick building with dark windows. Those who frequent the building say they once mistook it for a church or school. That’s not surprising – children and families come and go during the day carrying backpacks and plastic bags, and the backside of the building features a playground, picnic tables and a basketball court. Multiple cars usually speckle the parking lot on George Street or in the parallel parking spots along Pine Street.
The building – the M.L. Keefe Community Center – is a hidden gem in the community that provides the resources needed to empower and support Hamden residents. The center houses Hamden’s Department of Community Services and is staffed by five full-time employees and numerous volunteers. The staff say that they focus on the needs of people and their families, and make sure that clients are always treated with dignity and respect.
The center may be a place for residents to get financial advice, child care or emergency food when the cupboard is bare, but clients and residents say that it is more than that, and that it is a place to feel welcome, seen and supported.
“To me [the Keefe Center] it's a big help,” said Doretha Jackson, a Keefe Center regular. “You got to get help somewhere.”
The center offers many services to residents. Center staff host a number of health and career fairs, provide tax services, a daycare center and adult education classes. A food pantry operates three days a week and serves approximately 100 clients per week.
“The Keefe Center ... the M.L. Keefe Center has actually been a blessing,” said Hamden resident Deborah Clark. “But lately since Y’Isiah got here it's been a whole different thing.”
Under the management of the new community services coordinator Y’Isiah Lopes, clients say the center has flourished. Lopes has taken an initiative to emphasize that the community center is for the community, by listening to clients and residents alike. Lopes has been supportive to those in need and created a local survey for the food pantry to diversify the food available. Lopes has even gotten the ball rolling on a community garden that will be unveiled sometime this summer.
Yet clients say that the center needs even more visibility in Hamden.
“We’ve got to be advocates for the center because no one knows what this building is doing here,” said Clark.
Three Keefe Center regulars shared what the center means to them and how they arrived at its steps. Below are their stories:
“This the best thing to ever happen to Hamden.”
“They’ve been here for me and I love each and every one [of the staff] in my own special way.”
“The main thing is the workers treat people with respect.”