ENGLEWOOD — Seven months ago when Charles Robinson started working as a skate guard at a South Side roller rink, his life changed for the better.
"It got me off the street. It saved my life," said Robinson, 18, who lives in Englewood. "The life I have today I did not have before I started working here."
The savior for Robinson and many other youth is the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park & Family Entertainment Center, 1219 W. 76th St, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Feb. 2. The huge facility not only has a roller rink but also boasts a 10-lane bowling alley, arcade room and a food station.
Naomi Shine, the center's general manager, would like to see more centers open in impoverished neighborhoods.
"This community has a lot of challenges especially for our youth and we want to give them an alternative to the streets," said Shine. "Most of our 50 employees are from the neighborhood. Our goal is to provide a family atmosphere where children and adults can enjoy themselves and feel safe."
Indeed, safety is a priority at the center, whose employees range from 16 to 60. Armed security guards patrol the center and pat down everyone who enters.
And parents said they are thrilled the center exist.
"I am here with my daughter and having a blast," said hair stylist Annette Kimmons. "I don't live in Englewood but in Chatham, but still come here because it is a kid's tresasure."
Kimmons' daughter, Kara, said she wanted to come to center to show off her new roller skates.
"I like skating and now that I have some new skates I will be asking my mom to bring me every Friday," added Kara.
Latrice Davis, 44, was also at the center Friday with her nephew.
"I just like to sit back and watch the kids have fun, something they cannot do outside these walls," she said. "I don't skate, but I can bowl and sometimes when I bring my nephew, I will bowl while he skates."
Friday is a popular night at the center, in part, because admission is only 50 cents. Admission varies during the week from $3 to $7, depending on the day of the week and if a patron is renting roller skates. For example, Wednesdays at the center is Family Day and admission is $3 with skates and $6 without skates.
The youth-oriented center is a popular place to be on weekends, said James Taylor, a 14-year old freshman at Calumet High School on the South Side.
"This is all that we talk about at school. I couldn't wait for Friday to get here. I come here a lot and hang out with my friends," said Taylor, who lives in Englewood. "I can tell you this, if this place was not here I would probably be outside on the corner hanging out, and that's no fun."
His cousin Kenari Harper agreed.
"I kick it up here with my cousin every now and then," said the 16-year old sophomore at Hyde Park Academy High School on the South Side. "I'd say it's been two years now that I have been coming here and never had any problems, and have gotten better at skating too."
For some youth, like 12-year old Ladena Jennings, who has been coming to the center since it opened in 2003, the center has become a popular hangout.
"I was two-years old when I first came here and now I come every week," said Jennings. "This is without a doubt the best place to be on a Friday."
Showing off skate moves is what motivates Usamah Temple to come to the center.
"I like doing my moves with my boys and showing people what I can do," said the 14-year old who lives in Englewood. "I know a lot of kids who have avoided trouble thanks to this place being open on the weekends when there's no school and not much else to do."
Robinson said younger kids now look up to him and it is a responsibility he takes seriously.
"Most of these kids do not have a father at home and around here there are not many positive role models," explained Robinson, who aspires to start his own construction company in the next 10 years. "Hopefully I can be a good influence to the younger kids and they can stay out of trouble like I did."