Greg Hoyte stood in front of a group of students at the Stoughton Area Youth Center, holding his hand high in the air.

“This is how awesome you are,” Hoyte said to the group. “When you’re in this building you’ve got to look at yourself that way. You also got to look at everyone else that way, too, because if you are awesome, that guy or the girl to your right or left is awesome too.”

Hoyte, who has been the director of the Stoughton Area Youth Center for a total of 14 years, tells this to every student that walks into the center. He wears many hats as a mentor, a behavior specialist, a fundraiser, a businessman and a city employee.

When he started, 12 students came to the youth center on an average Monday through Friday during the school year. Now the SAYC averages more than 50.

In addition to preparing daily snacks and keeping the place in working order Hoyte, along with the Friends of the Stoughton Area Youth Center and the Parks and Recreation Department, must raise at least $120,000 annually to keep the center functional.

Most recently, Hoyte helped raise more than $50,000 in addition to the operating expenses for a large renovation that took place over the summer and gave visitors and a fresh place to find mentorship.

“He is the heart and soul of the youth center,” said city parks and recreation director Dan Glynn.

The SAYC serves kids in fifth through ninth grade. It is open from 3-6 p.m. during school days and offers basketball, computers, snacks and activities like birdhouse building and pottery.

But Hoyte said if people only associate SAYC with programming, he has failed. He tells the students he wants them to walk away with a long-term mindset.

“The philosophy is respect for self, respect space and respect each other,” he said. “This mindset is what is going to change. This mindset is going to help you succeed here and we’re going to help you succeed in school, in the community, everywhere.”

Philosophy over programs

Hoyte’s career with youths started in 1997, 10 years after coming to the United States from Guyana.

He was working outside of New York City in a 10 week summer camp for children who had traumatic childhoods. They were in gangs, surrounded by violence and detention centers — what Hoyte called forgotten kids.

“And I got hooked,” Hoyte said of working with youths.

He eventually became camp director and a behavior specialist.

Today, he and his wife of 17 years live in McFarland with their three children, a 16 year old girl and twin 10 year old boys. He said every single day he treats his kids the exact same way he treats the students that walk into the center.

At the beginning of the school year, Hoyte meets with all the students as a group four times per week. He repeats his message: “Respect self. Respect others. Respect space.”

To increase awareness when the early number of attendees was low, he’d go to the middle school and sit with the kids at lunch. He’d meet one on one and talk to the kids about what’s going on at the center.

Now, he said, there are almost too many kids. Activities like lock-ins or basketball tournaments can draw crowds of 70 plus, which is challenging for three staff members.

“I just let them know how awesome they are,” he said.

There are some strict rules, like appropriate dress and no swearing. But Hoyte said he doesn’t find himself disciplining children, because when he helps them achieve that “I’m awesome” mindset, behavior usually follows.

Previous SAYC participants often come back to the center — sometimes to work, sometimes to volunteer and sometimes just to say hi to Hoyte. The current youth center assistant positions have been filled by students who once worked with Hoyte previously at the center.

“Hoyte has a cycle of people,” Glynn said.

Investment in the center

In addition to fostering a positive philosophy and mindset, Hoyte runs the day-to-day operations of the 3,000-square-foot building.

He frequently applies for local grants from The Wahlin Foundation and The Bryant Foundation. He uses his community connections to pool resources from different businesses and residents.

“(Hoyte’s) presence at the SAYC is the reason the community supports this so much,” Friends of the Stoughton Area Youth Center member Bob McGeever said. “Everybody liked the work that he was doing.”

Hoyte used his connections to get a good deal on a new gym floor that was built this summer. He asked a Cummins employee to install the floors on the stairs for free, and the center now has new carpet in the main entrance and new appliances in the kitchen.

Hoyte said he still has two main projects he’d like to complete in the building: A fresh layer of paint with a darker color to hide scuff marks and a commercial kitchen so the SAYC can provide full meals to students rather than afternoon snacks.

“The board has said several times how hard it would be to replace him,” said McGeever. Which they were forced to do when Hoyte left for three year and worked at the YMCA.“He’s been with the city for a long time.”

Hoyte said he doesn’t plan on leaving the youth center anytime soon. He has a good thing going here, and he enjoys what he is able to provide.

One of his favorite exercises to do with students is to write positive words on a piece of paper. Things like special, one of a kind, unique and awesome. He asks the kids who could be described by these words? The kids always say someone like Barack Obama but never themselves, he said.

Then he points to them, looks them directly in the eye and says, “Guess what? This is you.”

Contact Mackenzie at mackenzie.krumme@wcinet.com.