Happy Birthday, GIAC!

 By Kristie Snyder,
GreenLeaf Editor

GIAC 1_smFor 40 years GIAC has met the needs of its community — often when no one else would — and it's time to celebrate. The Greater Ithaca Activities Center's annual festival, scheduled for Saturday, June 9 from 11 am to 6 pm, will serve as a giant birthday party, honoring "40 Years of Building Community through Celebration of Cultures."

GIAC was created in 1972 following the loss of the downtown YMCA to fire and the closing of the Northside House community center. To meet the need for recreational programs for City children, the City of Ithaca, the Ithaca City School District (ICSD), the Tompkins County Social Services Department and the United Way came together to found GIAC. It was housed in an unused school building on Albany and Court Streets, which, after a major renovation a couple years ago, remains its home. Today the Center operates as a department of the City, but still maintains strong partnerships with the ICSD and receives United Way funding. A unique structure as a non-profit City department allows the Center to seek grant funding, which supports many of its programs. "We're here for the community, whatever the needs are," explained Deputy Director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne.

GIAC's mission is to provide "multicultural, educational, and recreational programs focused on social and individual development," including services "dedicated to improving the quality of life for the people we serve; advocating for the rights and needs of youth, families, underrepresented and disenfranchised populations; providing structured employment training opportunities for at-risk youth and adults; and fighting against oppression and intimidation in our community."

In the four decades since 1972, GIAC has evolved and grown in support of this mission, adding programs as the need arose. In 1975, GIAC even housed the "Grain Store," predecessor of today's GreenStar, in their basement.

GIAC's oldest program predates the Center itself: its boxing program was started at the Southside Community Center in 1968 and moved to the Center in its opening year. The program, open to men and women, has produced professional fighters and is a huge source of pride to the GIAC community. The GIAC Navigators track program offers similar opportunities to kids who love to run; students participate in track meets as far away as Boston.

Most of GIAC's programs were born out of the simple perception of need in the community, and many of them are grant or donor funded. The formula is simple: GIAC sees the need, a staffer writes a grant or seeks donor funding, and a program is born. When GIAC management realized some children in the after-school programs were going without hot meals for dinner, they created a program that now feeds a hot dinner three evenings a week to around 80 kids. As the Enfield and Caroline Elementary Schools saw their student populations become more diverse, GIAC sent African-American staff members to those schools to help support students of color. High school kids with repeated suspensions, at risk for slipping through the cracks of the educational system entirely, were recruited for the Conservation Corps program. They attend school for half a day and spend the remaining time working — for a stipend — on real job sites for community organizations dedicated to sustainability. Student Athletes First was created to support teens on athletic teams who need academic support.

GIAC's after-school programs serve hundreds of kids from preschool to teen age, with a five-day-a-week program designed to support them academically while providing recreation opportunities as well. The teens run their own T-shirt printing business and participate in clubs like the Urban Art Club, which displayed a mural in GreenStar's play area a couple of months ago and is currently beautifying the former library property on Cayuga Street. Summer camp provides the same opportunities outside of the school year, and a summer basketball league gives adults an outlet, too. Then there's the Alex Haley pool, which was built to meet the need for a pool accessible to downtown residents, and offers affordable open swim time and swim lessons all summer. A Senior Program offers activities and trips year-round to low-income seniors, and a refugee assistance program provides English language instruction and other support.

Job training is an important aspect of GIAC's mission. The Center actively seeks to offer employment to those with barriers including lack of education or a criminal history and then supports those employees with extra training. "We're a second-chance institution," McBean-Clairborne says. "We give people the opportunity to prove themselves and to change their lives. We have long-term staff here who've had run-ins with the law in the past and have become solid, active staff members and mentors in the community because we believed in them."

Some think of the center as only serving the city's Black children, but McBean-Clairborne points out that that's far from the case. "There are Black folks here, but so is everyone else!" she laughed. "We're multicultural and intergenerational." The Center serves low-income families, regardless of race or ethnicity. About 60 percent of participants in GIAC student programs are children of color, while the Senior Program participants are predominantly white. "We pride ourselves on having programs that meet the needs of the lowest-income people," said McBean-Clairborne. "Many fees are on a sliding scale, and we don't turn anyone away."

While they're doing serious work in the community, the folks at GIAC like to have fun, too. Five annual special events bring the community together in various ways. The long-standing Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Breakfast honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a celebration including breakfast, speakers and music, attended by over 400 people each year. In February, the Black History Month Community Talent Show highlights the best of Black life and Black culture in Ithaca. The GIAC Festival, in June, celebrates the GIAC community (keep reading for more details on this year's Festival), a Halloween parade and party is a blast for the Center's kids, and a fall Harvest Dinner "is our signature event of thanks," said McBean-Clairborne. Local restaurants donate food and the staff cooks it — all day long! — in order to feed a community dinner to about 300 people.

GIAC extends an invitation to all in the community to help celebrate their 40 years of service. The GIAC fest will be held on Saturday, June 9, from 11 am to 6 pm, and features live music, multicultural performers, games and vendors. Community organizations, including GreenStar, will be tabling, and GreenStar will be a food vendor this year — look for grilled goodies cooked up by Deli Manager Erik Lucas. GreenStar members willing to volunteer at GIAC Festival this year can earn member labor credit for their effort — please see the Membership Corner on page 4 for more information.

"We're celebrating 40 years of meeting the needs of the community; 40 years of just building community one house at a time," said McBean-Clairborne. "And we'll continue for another 40 and then some!"

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