The East Madison Community Center has changed in countless ways since Donald Hayes spent much of his after-school hours at the facility.
Without a gym, library, computer room and other amenities, Hayes and his friends spent most of their time playing outside the center — a short walk from Hayes’ home in the Truax Park apartment complex.
The former University of Wisconsin and NFL wide receiver played a key part in that expansion and is now back to help the children it benefits.
The EMCC hired Hayes, 43, as a youth worker after he moved back to Madison in August to finish his degree in Afro-American studies. He’s set to graduate from UW-Madison on May 11.
During his playing career, he signed autographs for kids at the center and donated $25,000 to support a building expansion of the Educational Enrichment Center, the largest donation from a former youth participant in the EMCC’s 53-year history.
Hayes, who eventually wants to become a coach, graduated from Madison East High School in 1994 and earned first-team all-state honors in both football and basketball as a senior. He went on to catch 106 passes for 1,575 yards and four touchdowns during his career with the Badgers.
In his six-year NFL career, four with the Carolina Panthers, he recorded 144 catches, 1,988 yards and nine scores.
How often were you here as a kid?
All the time. Every day. Unless I got in trouble at home. But every day. And what they have now, it’s awesome because the center has grown. There were a lot of things that we didn’t actually have that the kids have now, where they can kind of stay inside and not really have to be outside as much.
More safety for the kids, and parents around the neighborhood don’t have to worry about where’s my kid all the time. When they come to the center, they’re actually here, they’re protected.
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How important is a center like this for a lot of these kids?
It’s important. Looking back at it, and then sitting and talking to some of these kids, some of them just really want someone to just listen to what’s going on with them. I guess for me, just trying to understand where the kid is actually coming from or their story.
I think each kid has a story, but most people don’t hear their story, or they try to label or put kids in a box and try to treat every kid just like that. But you can’t actually do that. When they come here to the center, we have people on the staff that, I wouldn’t say cater to their needs, but pay that one-on-one attention that maybe they’re not getting at home or not getting at school.
How special is this place for you?
It gave me an outlet to not make bad choices. I’m not saying everyone who came here didn’t make bad choices, but for me, it gave me that outlet of family.
Do you think you’re always going to be a part of this center in some way?
Oh, always. Always. It gave me so much as a kid in the sense that, it kept me from getting in so much trouble that was out there, or so much nonsense. Because it’s kind of like, with most kids, they get bored. What am I going to do? If kids don’t have anything to do, they go out and get in trouble. If they don’t know how to direct their energy, then they’re going to end up doing something knucklehead. They just don’t have guidance or something to follow.
I’m not the only success. There are other people out there doing wonderful things that came out of this neighborhood. I wasn’t ever the best player on the team, but I was just the one that stayed somewhat on a straight line and didn’t stray off too far and get in trouble or get caught up in something.
I hear those stories all the time. Oh, he was the greatest player but he ended up getting arrested or ended up doing that one knucklehead thing and he went in jail. He was the best player, but no one heard about him because they were in trouble. So that was the only thing that separated me from some of the guys at East and coming out of this neighborhood. Thank God I was able to really make it through. Because it was tough. Nothing is easy.