Organizers of Milwaukee's Twilight Centers find a way to continue operations during pandemic

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Many schools have gone to virtual learning and a lot of programs for kids are cancelled. That’s left few outlets for kids in Milwaukee to have organized fun. But several nights a week, a number of schools in the city open up for them to come and play. Teenagers are welcome at Twilight Centers, which Milwaukee Public Schools and Milwaukee Recreation team up to provide.

When the sun goes down, the centers open up. CBS 58 visited the site at North Division High School, one of seven locations in the city.

“Madison, Obama, Washington, North, South and Pulaski,” said recreation manager, Lauren Lopez-Gonzalez. Those locations are all open for kids between the ages of 12-18. Andrew Douglas is open for middle schoolers, between the ages of 10-15.

Inside, kids are wearing masks on the basketball courts, running drills, taking shots, and having fun with friends.

“I come to the rec to play basketball and see my friends, hangout,” said 15-year-old Jeremy Coleman, a sophomore at Riverside University High School. He brings his little brother to play ball three nights a week.

“I can just be a kid here, you know. Whatever kids want to do, they can do here,” Coleman said. “They can play sports, play video games.”

And right now, there aren’t a lot of places offering those things.

“That is the need I see in the city, is like, where can young people find joy that isn't expensive,” Lopez-Gonzalez said. “We're totally free here!”

Lopez-Gonzalez oversees the Twilight Centers and has been working hard to keep them open safely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. She goes so far as to trap a stray basketball with her feet, and slides it back to the boys.

“We try not to touch the balls here,” she said with a laugh. “We are making sure we're checking temperatures, wearing masks, cleaning hands.”

The signs of safety are everywhere, reminding kids to social distance and sanitize their hands. Staff members are constantly wiping down furniture and games. But Lopez-Gonzalez said not all of the safety they provide has to do with physical health.

“Things might be stressful right now at home, during a pandemic,” she said. “And so you're looking for a place where you can, you know, just not think about the outside world for a second.”

Rec supervisor Jason Blocker says the adults check in with the kids.

“When the kids come in, we interact with them, we talk to them, hey, how you doing,” Blocker explained.

“You think of young people who don't really have control of any of the situation right now,” Lopez-Gonzalez said.

But from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m., three nights a week, they have somewhere safe and fun to come.

“This is known in the city that Twilight is going on Monday, Wednesday, either Friday or Saturday,” Blocker said with a smile.

And if basketball isn’t what kids are looking for, there are plenty of other games to play, computers to work on, or just a quiet space to sit.

“You can read, if you want to, in a room like this,” Lopez-Gonzalez said, motioning around herself. “You can be in the hallway and just sit down and talk to an adult, if you just want to chitchat with someone.”

Kids get a snack and a bottle of water while they’re there. Looking at the kids across the gym, Lopez-Gonzalez can see herself in them.

“I grew up on 12th and Madison and there was a lot of need there,” she said.

Now, she gets to help fill that need for others.

“To create those spaces, where you're also creating memories for families, I think, is something that growing up, I wouldn't have thought that this was a job! What? I get to create fun for people and it's not Disney,” she said with a big laugh.

It’s what keeps Coleman coming back, week after week, and he said he’d encourage other kids to try it, too.

“I'd tell them it's pretty cool here, you should come check it out,” he said. “If you want to have fun, this is where you go. If you want to feel safe, this is where you should come.”

Lopez-Gonzalez said that’s what she considers high praise.

“It's something different,” she said. “It means the world to me to be able to do that for a city that I grew up in, too.”

For more information on the Twilight Centers, including locations and hours of operation, click here.

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