If Tom Mladenetz seems at home in the South Broad Street Catholic Youth Organization center, it is because it is a home of sorts for him.
Mladenetz, now 56 and executive director of the CYO, started as a youth volunteer for the CYO of Mercer County and has barely left, except for 10 years in the recreation nonprofit field. And even during those years he was a loyal volunteer for the CYO. There has always been a CYO center during Tom’s life, and he played there as a youth.
“I’m a Trenton guy,” he says about his roots. “I grew up on Tremont Street and went to St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church School. This is my neighborhood.” His dad, who died in 2014 at age 94, was a printer, and Tom was a Trentonian paperboy. In fact, his dad lived on Tremont Street for 80 years, and Tom lived there for 25 years. His mother, who died earlier this year, was the daughter of immigrants from Czechoslovakia and grew up in North Trenton on Spruce Street.
For his dad, growing up in Trenton meant 10-cent matinees at RKO. For Tom, growing up in Trenton meant walking around flush with $1 bills from his paper route. He started working at the CYO when he was 15 as a junior counselor. “It’s part of who I am,” says Mladenetz, now a Hamilton resident.
The CYO was founded in 1952 at Broad and Center streets, at the Sacred Heart Church, the oldest Catholic church in New Jersey, by the late Msgr. Leonard Toomey, who approached the Diocese of Trenton with his vision for a social services agency. The Broad Street property was purchased in 1961 and it took three years to transform it. “They had amazing foresight,” says Mladenetz. “Here we are 50 years later.”
Physically, the South Broad Street CYO can’t be missed traveling southeast. The old RKO movie theater has a working marquee shouting “CYO.” Proudly, Mladenetz brings visitors to a balcony overlooking a gymnasium, an art deco room with a shiny wood floor and regulation-sized basketball court.
The building has pre-school classrooms for 90-plus and a playground, and is also busy in the afternoon with 110 youths for after-school programs on South Broad. A fleet of 12 vans and buses fans out through the area bringing children to after-school programs. More than 1,300 children ages 2 through 17 are served by the CYO.
The five locations serve additional youths during the summer, and more participate in seasonal athletic leagues. The locations are at South Broad Street, Trenton; Yardville in Hamilton; Ewing; East State Street Center in Trenton; and Bromley Center in Hamilton. Before and after school programs are located in four Hamilton Township schools: Klockner, Greenwood, Wilson, and Lalor.
Its mission is to enhance the lives of greater Mercer County youth and their families, “providing affordable, quality educational and recreational services, which include pre-schools, before and after-school programs, summer camps, swim lessons, and youth athletic leagues.” Although the CYO is heavily rooted in the Catholic tradition, it is all inclusive.
Led by a board of trustees, the CYO has some 40 full-time and 90 part-time staff, and 100-plus seasonal employees. Others, include coaches and aides, are volunteers.
The sites serve different populations to help the changing demographics in Trenton. While South Trenton used to house many Eastern European immigrants, and East Trenton housed Italians, now both areas are predominantly Latino. In fact, the sign on the CYO parking lot says Se Habla Espanol (We Speak Spanish). More than half the staff is bilingual, and many of the pre-school parents do not speak English.
Mladenetz was an accounting major at Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey, and switched his major to recreation administration. He got his master’s degree in education from Temple University.
“I thought I could help people,” he says, explaining the blend of recreation and education. He worked for Princeton and East Windsor townships. In fact, he is still a commissioner, a volunteer position, for the Mercer County Park Commission, which he calls one of the best public park systems in the state. But when his predecessor retired, Tom, a volunteer, was tapped for the CYO job. He had been an athletic director and a pool supervisor earlier. “I’ve been on both sides,” he says.
Mladenetz often works seven days a week. The typical day starts at 5:30 a.m. when he gets up to make the rounds of the sites, including in the four public schools. He is at Yardville by 7:30 a.m. He represents the CYO at many meetings and is the point person for each site. “I make sure things run smoothly,” he says. He also writes grants and prepares program reports for monthly board meetings. He works with community partners and oversees maintenance.
“There is a lot of monitoring because it is a nationally accredited child care center,” he says. “That goes above and beyond the requirements, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children — the accrediting agency — “speaks volumes to commitment and quality,” he says. “We choose to go above and beyond.
“It’s like a home. You finish one project and you’re on to the next project. My phone never stops. I am hands-on as an administrator, but my family is supportive,” he says.
His parents instilled in him a strong work ethic and religious faith that was passed on to his own children with wife, Mary Jane: Tom, detective with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office; Tim, a sales manager who is starting an MBA program; and Christina, a student at Rider University.
His parents’ social life was built around the church, and he and his siblings attended parochial schools. All four have master’s degrees; all work in human services. “Religious faith and education were important to raising us,” he says. His mother was the first child in her own family to graduate from high school and she juggled school with part-time work.
The community also knows the CYO for recreational basketball. A popular Hall of Fame dinner attracts some 300 people. Mladenetz, who himself played from 1968 through 1975, sees that “it allows people to reconnect,” and when they attend reunions they learn about the social service aspect.
There are events all year, including a summer show with Trenton Artworks in August, and a major fundraising event, the CYO Golf Classic, in its 21st year, at the Mountainview Golf Course on Thursday, October 5, honoring Martin Flynn, director of the Economic Development Office of Hamilton Township, as CYO Man of the Year.
The CYO’s $4.5 million budget is paid from service fees, contracts, foundation and corporate grants, contributions, community block grants, some subsidized child care, and special events. Community partnerships help; some come to paint and help with the physical space. A partnership with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, for example, allowed the CYO to provide a food program for more than 750 children at two Trenton sites, Ewing, and Bromley.
In addition to its many and varied programs, the CYO also serves a social need. “The parents meet up at pickup and socialize. CYO enhances the sense of community,” Mladenetz says.
What is in store for CYO? “We are considering growth,” says Mladenetz. “We don’t want to get too big. We want to keep the family atmosphere. We know everyone’s names.”
Other social service sites have approached the CYO about taking over. “It says a lot for our reputation,” Mladenetz says. “We don’t take that lightly. We have said no more times than we have said yes.”
The CYO is but one of a number of good things happening in Trenton, he said. “I’m a believer in Trenton. When I came back here for this job, I had family and friends who thought I was crazy. There are some great businesses, and some reach out to our families.” He cites a developer’s program to help families install heating systems.
“I’m optimistic. It’s a long, slow process. If everyone works together, Trenton can move forward.” Fortunately for Trenton, Mladenetz says he plans to “be here for a long time.”