Jimmy Lee Recreation Center reopens with focus on community

A mural says "Be Yourself Fully, Everyone Else Is Taken"
Two people converse in the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center in St. Paul under murals painted on the wall. The rec center reopened Saturday after an employee shot and critically injured a 16-year-old in the parking lot.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

The Jimmy Lee Recreation Center, located in the heart of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood reopened this weekend. The center closed in January after an employee shot and critically injured a 16-year-old boy in the parking lot. In the past month, staff has focused on re-evaluating safety procedures and helping the community heal.

On Saturday the center was ready to welcome visitors back. The building was bustling with activity and in the gym, long-time community member Sam Bivens was working with a group of young basketball players.

Bivens said he hopes that incident won’t overshadow the impact the community center has had for many young people in the community.

A man sits on a bench inside the gymnasium.
Sam Bivens sits on a bench inside the gymnasium of the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

“We don’t want the things that have transpired to give the wrong impression to the outside about the community,” Bivens said. “Actually it’s good to come down here to see the kids have a good time. It doesn't matter whether it's athletics, studying, whatever it is, as long as they have an environment where they can come and be at peace. Sometimes I just come down here to watch them have a good time and be in an atmosphere with their own peers.”

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Sheraye Johnson was also there as part of the community members’ booster club’s program, which helps provide programs and support outside of what the City of St. Paul funds. For Johnson, it was important for her to be a welcoming face for returning and new visitors.

A woman stands near a desk within the recreation center.
Sheraye Johnson visits the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center in St. Paul on Saturday.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

“I decided to come out just to be here to welcome the families that come in to let them know that this is a safe place to be and to open it back up to the community for them to just come in and see what’s going on,” Johnson said. “I’m glad people came in. People are mingling, kids are playing and it’s almost back to normal.”

Staff at the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center will receive de-escalation training and will learn strategies to curb violent behavior.

The city says other security measures include new surveillance cameras and increased police presence. Community members like Michael Bridgeford are also willing to do their part.

“They remind me of me when I was a kid. And if I see ‘em, I’m saying something. ‘Like hey,  why are you using that kind of language?’ And I'm gonna say something to them and talk to them.” Bridgeford said. “And I'm gonna give them a hug when they're doing good. And I'm gonna ask them how their day is at school. You know, just make sure that they're OK.”

The center is also working with the public school system and violence prevention groups to keep this a safe place for kids for years to come.