In 2015, the leadership team of Lawrence Family Development began a journey that would transform an empty store front/warehouse into a state of the art youth center and safe haven in a city known for crime, gangs, and drugs.
In the early 1990’s, the board of the Lawrence Youth Commission incorporated Lawrence Family Development as a 501(c )3 with the goal of building programming to address the needs of Lawrence’s vulnerable populations. One of their early accomplishments was opening YouthBuild Lawrence, an alternative education/vocational training/community development focused program serving proven risk young people in the City and surrounding areas. For 20 years, YouthBuild Lawrence worked with 30 young people a year in the Orange Wheeler House, providing GED/HiSET preparation and construction training, while building single-family homes in the City. During this time, over 600 young people participated in YouthBuild Lawrence.
In 2015, Lawrence Family Development (LFD) was asked by the City of Lawrence to take over management of the struggling Lawrence Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI). A comprehensive gang intervention program, the Lawrence SSYI could work with up to 80 young people at one time, seriously pushing the limits of LFD’s current physical capacity. LFD’s leadership recognized the need for an innovative strategy to ensure the City’s most proven risk young people had access to all of the services needed and available, and LFD was able to provide those services in a manner designed to ensure success. LFD also needed to consider redundancy and long-term sustainability. The original goal of the SISU model was to evaluate the organization’s current capabilities, the needs of the client base, and to develop a strategy to fill the gap. The first step was to look at both programs and identify redundancy. LFD did not need two separate education, case management, and vocational staff. Alternative education was as much as need for the SSYI program as comprehensive case management was for YouthBuild. Additionally, both programs were built with workforce development and job training as key components. Finally, both programs relied on mental/behavioral health services and social-emotional modification strategies to support and strengthen the client’s path to success. LFD had staff, programming, and evidence based practices but lacked a space large enough to address the immense client needs and a unifying strategy to ensure both programs maintained their success.
Out of these gaps came the SISU Youth Center and the SISU program model. The first step was to find a space to house both programs. The second step was to develop a plan for merging the programs under one comprehensive model. The third step was execution.In the summer of 2015, LFD moved into a property on Canal Street. Blue prints were drafted, permits were acquired, a construction trainer was hired, and a team of SSYI program participants began redeveloping the space from a storefront and warehouse into a youth center. Working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in the heat and the cold, the team of program participants learned to repair hardwood flooring, strip flooring, frame walls, install drywall, run wiring, and lay plumbing lines.
After two and a half years of learning and hard work, the SISU Center was opened for programming. Today the SISU Center has the capacity to serve up to 120 young people, both male and female, a year.