SPRINGFIELD – Overloaded with his backpack, jacket, mask and latest art project, 8-year-old Logan Tuttle happily chatted about what he loves most in the South End Community Center.
âWe just have a lot of fun,â said Logan, who has been coming to the center since he was 4 years old.
Logan spent not only his after-school hours there, but full school days as well, as the center offered supervised distance learning for families who needed child care during the coronavirus pandemic.
The South End Community Center has had a hard time even before COVID-19. Its original building, a former armory on Howard Street, was heavily damaged in the June 1, 2011 tornado. It took the center six years to secure its new home on Marble Street. Last year it was forced to close again, this time for three months due to the pandemic.
âFor us, it was dÃ©jÃ vu. The tornado is happening and we have to close, the pandemic is happening and it’s another shutdown, but because of the tornado we were better prepared, âsaid executive director Wesley Jackson. âWe were ready and we knew what to do. This transition was a little easier for us because we went there.
Jackson has been an executive director for about four years, but has been on staff since 2006. He was working on the day of the tornado.
âIt was a normal day for us with different programming throughout the building, and when I saw the alerts on my phone for a tornado coming from the south, I knew it was real and took it to the serious, “he said.
Everyone in the building, around 80 people, moved into the basement.
âAbout 30 seconds later, chaos ensued,â Jackson said. âYou could feel the pressure in the building, then an explosion, then the roof collapsed and the windows started to shatter. Some children were stuck on the bus and the bus driver made sure they got on the ground. There were scratches and scuffs but no serious injuries or fatalities and we are so grateful. “
Jackson said staff, including former executive director Patrice Swan, and the centre’s board immediately began planning how they could continue to serve students while decisions were made regarding the damaged building.
âWe have worked with (federal and state emergency management agencies) and our insurance as well as with the city. It was months of meetings, but during that time we still had to serve the children, âhe said.
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the Northern Educational Service and Bay Path University are some of the organizations that have offered to help. The city offered school buildings for programming. Administrative staff worked from a trailer until they moved into space on East Columbus Avenue.
For six years, the community center operated that way until the new $ 10.3 million facility opened in 2017. The old community center was purchased by MGM Springfield and renovated prior to its grand opening in 2018. Before the pandemic, the building was used as a small entertainment venue. with additional meeting spaces.
âTwo or three days after the tornado, we held our annual fundraiser for the golf tournament. At this event, our then chairman of the board said that we would rebuild by whatever means necessary, and that was the order of the day from the start. We were going to make it work. There was never a time when we thought it was over. We had to be resilient, âJackson said.
Today, the center serves more than 200 children who participate in sports programs such as basketball, baseball, soccer and volleyball. The distance learning program has about 60 students, and there are about 40 in the after-school programs. A teen program serves 50 children, and the upcoming summer camp, which lasts eight weeks, will welcome approximately 300 children.
The centre’s indoor and outdoor basketball courts and fitness equipment are also available to the public. âThey can pay $ 1 or $ 2 to enter and use the field for the day or to use the gymnasium,â Jackson said.
When the pandemic hit, Jackson said, many community organizations came together to discuss how they would serve children whose families had jobs that required them to enter regardless of quarantine.
âThere was a definite need. We know of families who don’t have a reliable internet or who find it difficult to stay at home because they have to go to work, so it was an automatic decision, âhe said.
Logan has adapted to distance learning and said being at the community center allowed him to spend time with other children. His family chose to let him finish the school year by learning remotely at the center.
âWhen I come here I can have fun and make new friends and see Ms. Rocky every day,â said Logan, referring to Raquel âRockyâ Rivera, the after-school programming coordinator.
âYou really have to have a lot of patience,â she said with a laugh. âAt the beginning, it was very difficult, the school being online. It was new to them as it was new to us, but we were able to overcome it all and communicate with the teachers to help us overcome this.
The community center works with many children in the care of the State Department of Children and Families. Rivera said these children need a certain sense of stability, which the community center offers.
âI want to be here to show them that there are people out there who care and to give them that love that they sometimes lack,â she said. “Everyone calls me their second mom here.”
Rivera started as a receptionist at the center 15 years ago, then became a counselor. She said the center has given her professional growth.
âI always wanted to be a teacher, and it comes close,â she said.
Jackson, Rivera and the rest of the staff make sure families, not just children, feel welcome at the center. Together with the South End Citizens Council and the C3 Police Unit, they have organized movie nights, community basketball games and information sessions.
Police officer Anthony DiSantis, a member of the C3 unit, said the community center is a pleasant environment where officers and young people can interact and build trust.
âWe can talk to them about bike safety and things to know when walking to school, even simple topics like crossing the road. We try to touch even the small things, âhe said.
In the future, Jackson hopes to hire a new generation of pre-teens who missed the community center when they were 5 or 6 and the tornado destroyed the original building.
âWe want to reach a wider audience and offer more community outreach services like we did before the pandemic,â he said. “We are hitting social media hard and we are also hammering the sidewalk to bring even more neighborhood kids to the center.”