EAST ST. LOUIS — The building on the corner of Sixth Street at Summit Avenue has been like a home away from home for children and families across East St. Louis. But the center of attention on Monday was the man who has engineered a lot of love for those who are a part of the Christian Activity Center.
The testimonials of the work that Chet Cantrell, executive director of the CAC, has been doing to lighten the load for children and families in East St. Louis were plentiful Monday as people gathered to celebrate Cantrell's 25th anniversary of working with the center.
One after another, people talked about the man and the work that he does.
Staff member Arnold Tutson said, "The center creates a positive outlet for kids, families, men and everybody in the East St. Louis community. Without this center, the crime rate would be higher. The percentage of struggling families would be higher.
"Our leader, Chet Cantrell, means everything to this center. He is humble and has compassion for the people we work with. Everything starts at the top. The love he has for the children is communicated to them and the staff. And we all know how much he loves the children and the families and together we have just one mission -- to do our best to make a difference."
The children who attend the center range in age from 6 to 18. There are 700 kids who come more than three times a week, Cantrell said. There are at least 200 participants at the center each day.
Alisha Winford, 33, has been a part of the CAC since she was 9. Cantrell had blonde hair and a long mustache then. "I thought he was that wrestler named Hulk Hogan," she said. "I live in the Gompers. This center and Chet, has been everything to me. Whether I needed financial help, emotional support, he has been there. When I lost my dad he was there. My dad was known as a rough guy. Chet brought a humbleness to him. He is the kind of person who brings out the best in a person," she said.
Winford said the CAC center started in a garage with two swings and a sliding board. "Then, Chet started getting computers and other things," she said, smiling.
Cantrell is a father figure for many, including Winford. She said her father died when she was 13 and she had never been to Six Flags or on a camping trip. Because of Cantrell, she has had both experiences and more.
"Chet is the first white person ever to walk through the Gompers Homes and not be afraid. He cares about us. He deserves the recognition he is getting today. But, you know he would be fine if he didn't get the recognition. He does things from his heart," said Winford, the mother to five children.
Laughter and bubbly chatter filled the cafeteria of the CAC at 540 N. Sixth St. as the 70 or so people who came to the celebration engaged in conversation and ate from a feast that lined a table in the front of the room.
Cantrell said as a young boy he did not have many words. And, as an adult he is not seeking attention. He just wants to do God's work and help as many children and adults as he can along the way. Cantrell said a title is not important. But a testimony that is left behind is.
Cantrell said CAC has a long and rich history.
"I came in January 1989 to continue the work that was started in 1887," Cantrell said.
"We try to be a part of the community to help nurture and raise kids. We do after-school tutoring and help kids with homework, provide meals everyday, teach martial arts, provide computer training. We have a licensed therapist to help kids deal with trauma. We try to create kids who have skills to be successful in life," Cantrell said. He said the center has certified teachers and great kids who just need to know they're smart.
"We have the first 21st Century Intel lab in the works right here. We want our kids to be able to do far beyond what others in the world can do," Cantrell said.
The CAC is open from 3:30-8 p.m. when school is in session and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer.
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.