Four boys scramble out of the back of the van in front of Cornerstone Barbershop in Wallingford.
“There’s traffic here, I want you on the sidewalk,” says Larry Pelletier, Beat the Street Community Center director. “You always have to worry about their safety.”
Antoine Erickson, 10, Xiomar Aquilar, 11, Darriuss Tatum, 11, and Nicolas Aquilar, 10, are part of Beat the Street’s Career Explorer program. They were on assignment Monday to visit a barbershop to learn about hair styling and running a business.
Every week, Pelletier and a staff member take groups of six to 15 boys and girls to visit local businesses to get a feel for the variety of careers available to them. They’ve been to Lyons Manufacturing, Burns & McDonnell construction engineers, Meriden Hyundai, MidState Medical Center and others.
Beat the Street celebrates 25 years this year from the day Pelletier founded the Silver City Boxing Club on Railroad Avenue. The club later moved to its current home on South Colony Street. Today, Beat the Street consists of a fitness center, dance studio and learning technology center. Pelletier added the Career Explorer program about six years ago.
“We changed it to a community center because we were doing more than the boxing,” Pelletier said. “Beat the Street was our mission statement. What we were doing through our mission was to take our boxers and help them contribute... guide them to better education and careers. Today, a lot of programs are focused on more than just the boxing.”
Most of the children come from low to moderate income families in the downtown neighborhoods. The career program reveals more options to the children and builds confidence.
“Without the programs offered by the center, they wouldn’t get a unique cohesive environment to learn, and be better citizens in the community for it,” said Board of Directors Chairman Thomas Gaffey. “Most (youths) would not be able to afford the YMCA or Boys Club. We’ve gone light years beyond being a small boxing club.”
Pelletier, a former boxer, started Beat the Street in 1994 without knowledge of how to run a non-profit. Since then, membership has grown from 30 kids to more than 600. Tax attorneys helped him with the financials and forming a non-profit and other volunteers helped work with the kids.
“Everything is very formalized,” Gaffey said. “The board centers on how we can help Larry, providing human resources and fundraising. There is a lot of effort that goes into that.”
Much of Beat the Street’s $180,000 annual budget comes from grants, fundraising, foundations and private donations.
“That pays for the entire operation,” Gaffey said. “The programs Larry shepherded have turned Beat the Street from a boxing club to a full-fledged community center.”
Beat the Street will host a comedy night fundraiser, its biggest of the year, on Saturday, Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the North Italian Home Club, 43 Thorpe Ave.
Tickets are $30 and available for advance purchase at Beat the Street, 121 S. Colony St.
In addition to boxing, dancing, career development, career exploration and fitness, Beat the Street also has partnerships with Meriden Public Schools that allow the students to log on to their math and reading programs and complete some homework. Pelletier asks for 30 minutes before they move on to video games.
Pelletier’s passion for the safety and future of the city’s youth is apparent when he talks about some of their home lives and bleak prospects if not given options at a young age.
In addition to Meriden Public Schools, Beat the Street has partnerships with the juvenile courts, state Department of Children and Families, Child Guidance Clinic, adult education and others.
Many alumni are now police officers, firefighters, nurses, nurses’ aides and other professions, Pelletier said.
Some alumni like Cornerstone Barbershop owner Dino Stamidis are giving back. Beat the Street has about 80 regular businesses that invite youth in on a regular basis.
Barbershop customers look surprised and amused as the boys question owner/sylist Stamidis and stylist Cathia (Cat) Grau about the hardest shaved image they’ve ever had to do — a truck— and where they went for training.
After about 20 minutes of questioning, Antoine sits for a haircut, while Xiomar and Darriuss look on and handle the equipment. Nicolas finds a broom and sweeps the hair off the floor.
“He’s a natural,” Stamidis said.