|A certified teacher, John Harmelink was
hired as the youth program manager at
the East Madison Community Center
25 years ago.
John Harmelink Celebrates 25 Years at
By Jonathan Gramling
When John Harmelink, youth program manager at the East Madison Community Center,
interviewed for the job 25 years ago, he was very candid when asked if he could make a
commitment to the center.
“Tom came through with a question on my interview,” Harmelink recalled with a laugh. “’Can you
make a 1-2 year commitment?’ I thought that wasn’t a good way to start out, but I said, ‘I can’t
make any commitment. I’ll stay as long as it is challenging.’”
And 25 years later, Harmelink is still with EMCC. And while there is no doubt that the position has
been challenging, it is also the children who frequent the center and the people with whom he
works that have led to his long-term commitment.
Over the past 25 years, Harmelink estimated that 3,000-4,000 youth have come through the
center. And during the course of their tenure there, the youth become empowered to make
decisions — hopefully good decisions — about their lives.
A big part of the program is empowering children,” Harmelink said. “And that’s making sure that they feel they have self-worth, that the
community center is theirs. We’re working here, but it’s their community center and that’s what is very important. There are no better role
models than having children from the neighborhood coming up, seeing them graduate, seeing them coming and working here and being
positive role models. It’s important for the kids to see that. And also by getting the kids active in community service with the center and
helping out in every aspect, the center itself is going to feel more like a home than it will as an outside entity. School sometimes may feel kind
of feel negative to children and their parents. What I want to see is that the children feel a part of the community here. That means taking part in
all parts of it and not just coming here and just playing and leaving.”
When Harmelink started working at the center, while there was some structure in the after school programming, most of it was an open time
where the kids chose what they wanted to do. Harmelink began to add more structure.
“Knowing that jobs were hard to find and knowing that education was the key to get out of situations that affect your life in negative ways, I
took my educational background and decided to take a look at what the issues were in the neighborhood by passing out flyers and outreach,”
Harmelink said. “I saw that the grade point averages and the grades were pretty low and that we needed to focus more on making sure that we
improved the graduation rate and the grade point averages and just the overall wanting to succeed in school and setting long-term goals and
not just short-term goals. We wanted to make sure that there were resources available like tutors and computers and everything else to assist
the kids with their education.”
Behavioral problems, in and out of school, were also a concern.
“We noticed that many children were getting in trouble because of their anger issues,” Harmelink said. “We wanted to incorporate some social
skills, like anger prevention programs, to make sure that kids are getting to school and not being suspended or expelled because of
Over the years, Harmelink and the team at EMCC have honed their programming so that it leads to more positive outcomes for the kids.
“When the kids come back, they feel that one of the best times in their lives was when they were coming to the community center and how it
was a positive influence on their lives,” Harmelink said. “Even though many times we are hard on them with their homework, it pays off when
they graduate from high school and college. That’s one of our biggest accomplishments here, our graduation rate. It’s way over 90 percent. The
last year, the average grade point average among our middle school and high school kids who attend here at least three times per week was
over 3.0, which is unheard of. We had four kids with a 4.0 GPA. And last year, we only had two kids with under a 2.0 GPA. When you are trying
to measure results or outcomes, that’s one way we can take a look at things. The other way is that they are in a safe environment, that they are
learning social skills that many times they aren’t getting at home.”
And one can’t help but think that another reason for the kids’ success is the commitment and concern that they have for the kids under their
care. It is the staff’s positive attitude toward the kids that helps them to believe.
“The children here are some of the most responsible, some of the most respectful kids that I have ever worked with anywhere and anytime,”
Harmelink emphasized. “That makes your job much easier. They are awesome children and when given the opportunity, they will succeed just
like anybody else will even though many times, they have a lot of barriers to get through like the income limitations of single parents. But they
keep on moving on and they keep on succeeding. And that’s what keeps me here.”
Harmelink’s commitment to the youth and EMCC is 25 years and counting. There is always another generation of youth to steer in a positive