“We identify ‘diamonds in the rough’ and polish them to shine on the crown of society.” That’s the advertising tagline of Home of Champions, a project intended to convert the longtime home of former world heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson and his family into a site where high-achieving youth who are aging out of foster care can hone their leadership skills. Judith Halbreich, current owner of the 15-acre homestead on Springtown Road, has set up a new not-for-profit organization called Our Home Base, Inc. to bring her dream to fruition, and last Saturday she invited neighbors to an Open House at the site to learn more about what the group has planned.
When word got out about Our Home Base’s intentions for the former Patterson property, neighbors Kristin and Timothy Kay attended the August 3 New Paltz Town Board meeting to voice safety concerns, characterizing the project as an “orphanage” for “inner city kids.” Halbreich responded to New Paltz Times coverage of that meeting with a letter objecting to what she called “misrepresentation.”
“Home of Champions is not an orphanage or a place to house youth that roam the streets of New Paltz. Home of Champions is a leadership program for youth,” she wrote. “Home of Champions will carefully prescreen youth (18-24) with leadership capabilities and potential. The students will be of the highest academic standards and will be required to be in the top of their class. The focus is on students who are academically motivated and have the desire to become leaders in the community, academy and businesses.”
At the Open House event, speaker after speaker spoke of the role that the house, adjoining gymnasium and grounds had historically played in fostering personal growth for youth from underprivileged backgrounds. Members of the Patterson family and young athletes who had trained there gave their blessings to the project that Halbreich has in mind. “I’m one of the last kids to box in this gym,” Anthony Stronconi, Jr. of Wappingers Falls told the New Paltz Times following the presentation. “This is the best thing you could be doing with this place.”
Much of the slide presentation offered by project architect Dimitri Chatzipetros was focused on Phase One of the renovation envisioned by Our Home Base principals: adaptation of the site’s existing gymnasium facility into a “main activities space” that would be open to community use. Chatzipetros said that modular improvements could make the ground floor of the gym adaptable into a stage for concerts and performances while remaining usable as a boxing ring and physical training site. A wraparound balcony on the second floor could seat audiences or be reconfigured for yoga workshops or other purposes. The third floor could be used as a library, a meditation lounge or even an observatory, Chatzipetros said. Youth in the program would be challenged to build their own modular storage units that could be endlessly reconfigured as needed to shape the spaces. “It’s a building that’s going to change all the time,” the architect said.
A Manhattan-based MSW/Licensed Certified Social Worker, Halbreich currently serves as director of adult outpatient mental health services for the Upper Manhattan Mental Health Center, Inc. and has a long track record of administering social services programs, according to her LinkedIn profile. One of the attendees at Saturday’s event, Suellen Bohning of Kent, Connecticut, said that she had been a colleague of Halbreich since the 1970s, when the latter took up the reins from her as executive director of McMahon Services for Children in New York City. Bohning called the Open House “a great presentation” and termed Halbreich “a great administrator, a great person, a great organizer with a big heart.”
Despite her background in mental health services, Halbreich stressed that her plan is not to create a group home in New Paltz for teens with behavioral problems. “We’re not going to take any mental health kids,” she stated categorically, emphasizing that the Home of Champions is meant to cultivate youth with high skills and leadership potential to serve their own communities. “We’re going to start very small. It’s a pilot program. There’s not another one like it in the country.”
Estimates of the number of youth in the startup program ranged from six to 12. A workplan circulated at the Open House described Year One as being devoted to a needs assessment and analysis of current best practices, development of screening criteria for participants, curriculum development, formulation of daily activity guidelines for program residents, planning enrichment activities and opportunities for outside academic learning and identification of paths to independence. Actual screening and enrollment of participants is not planned to begin until Year Two.
So, what does the surrounding community think of all this? Stuart Robinson, director of athletics at SUNY New Paltz and adoptive father of four boys, expressed his hope that the college would become involved in the project. “Anytime you have an opportunity to support young people, that’s a great situation,” he told the Times. He endorsed the concept of “giving them that opportunity to find their footing…to become productive members of the community.”
Also present and supportive was Springtown Road neighbor William Charnock. “I think it was a really powerful presentation,” he said, calling the proposed project “a continuation of what had always happened here, but in a more controlled and structured way…. They seem to have a real desire to engage the community.”
And what about skeptical neighbors Kristin and Timothy Kay? Their names were entered in the Open House guestbook, but were they persuaded by what they heard? “I hope so,” said Halbreich. “I’ll always be in touch with the neighbors. This is a community project.”