Imagine one neighborhood where 147 juvenile arrests were made in one year alone. That is what happened in 1938. Grand Rapids Police Department Superintendent Frank O’Malley decided that this was unacceptable and proposed an innovative idea – keep children out of trouble by providing them with supervised recreation in their own communities. This one neighborhood in particular was selected for this experiment, an area close to downtown Grand Rapids. This neighborhood was bordered by the Grand River, railroad tracks, and commercial and industrial buildings. The only playground was locked after school hours.
While the solution may sound reasonable and simple, many had some doubts. One question many had was how the neighborhood may respond. Would the neighborhood children ever trust police, who up to now had only arrested them? So on the Friday before Christmas in 1938, the Grand Rapids Police hosted a Christmas party at the Methodist Community House on Wealthy Street. It was so well attended the police gave away several hundred bags of candy, fruit and nuts to neighborhood children.
After the party, the children quickly joined Patrolman Clyde H. Deming in cleaning and refurbishing two rented rooms in the basement of the Methodist Community House. Activities included football, basketball, softball, volleyball and ice skating on a member built rink in the backyard of the center. The back porch of the building became the stage for the Wealthy Street Theater. A library was established and pianos were donated for music lessons. Metal working was also one of the early activities; and a program in which the children grew, cooked and canned the produce was popular.
The effect on the neighborhood was amazing. In 1939, the juvenile arrest record dropped from 147 to 4. The program continued and grew with the Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth renting space in schools until they built their own youth centers. The first permanent youth center was the Variety West Side Center. It opened in December 1953 at 252 Indiana Ave. It developed structural problems and was demolished about 1990. In 1958, the Seidman Center was built at 139 Crofton St. and is still in operation today. The Variety West Side Center was replaced in 2000 by the Steil Center at 235 Straight Ave NW.
In the early 1940’s the Police Department began looking at ways that children could enjoy participating in camping opportunities. In late 1941 Captain Charles D. Winslow purchased land on the Thornapple River. The first camping season at what would later be called Camp O’Malley was held in 1942.
Because of the foresight and support of the leadership of the Grand Rapids Police Department, the history of the Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth continues. In 2007, the GRYC joined forces with Boys & Girls Clubs of America to enhance programming offered to the children at both youth centers. With this affiliation, Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth became Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth joining 4,500 clubs from across the country serving almost 5 million children each year.