There's life back in Jefferson School. A couple of years ago, the burgeoning warmth that now fills the hallways, classrooms, kitchen and grounds could only be imagined. Now, the chatter of school kids echoes down the hallways on a foggy summer afternoon.
Heidi Benzonelli, co-director of the Westside Community Improvement Association, which purchased and is operating the Jefferson School site, has nearly enough exuberance by herself to fill up the broad, hardwood-floored halls. She strides around the property, breathlessly listing the projects and partnerships that are helping the community center bloom. For Benzonelli and other neighbors in Eureka's West Side, the building sat as a reminder of a loss to neighborhood kids, who bent holes in its grim chain link fences to gain access to outdoor basketball hoops. Vandalism and break-ins became routine. That's changing.
Jefferson School — located on B Street between Washington and West Clark — is very much a work in progress. The rooms of the north wing aren't usable for much more than storage, for the time being. But it's a far cry from the derelict husk that sat unused by children for six years until 2011. And the flames of controversy have largely settled from when the community center was forged. Eureka city councilmembers who once quashed the city's involvement with the project — drawing the neighborhood's ire — have since volunteered at building days on the school's grounds.
To hear it from Benzonelli, the center's momentum is nearly unstoppable. "We're a multi-million-dollar organization overnight," she said. Three years after negotiating the purchase of the Jefferson School with a $3.3 million grant, the property is paid off, bills are paid on time and the Westside Community Improvement Association has no debt, Benzonelli said.
The Eureka Design Review Committee was beyond pleased with the latest architectural plans for the school, Benzonelli said, unanimously approving them on July 9. The plans call for replacing the austere blacktop with trees, fields, basketball and bocce courts: all part of a spruced up west-facing entrance to the building.
One playground has already been built with help from a national nonprofit that specializes in creating kid-friendly neighborhood structures. Another community planning day is scheduled for the end of July, which will give the WCIA direction on how to convert the rest of the school grounds' old asphalt. A group of California Conservation Corps trainees is going to install solar panels — a project that will not only lower energy costs for the school, but will teach the corps members a valuable trade skill and allow them to do similar projects at other area schools.
That project reflects the philosophy that Benzonelli and WCIA board member Richard Evans perhaps most value. They want to see every project at the school benefit the kids who study, eat and play there; their parents, who have nearby affordable places for their kids to spend time while they work; the neighbors who volunteer their time; the young people who work and train there; and the organizers who are committed to maintaining the space.
And Benzonelli said she's seen evidence of just that. Last fall Carrie Maschmeier, who works for the Ink People, contacted WCIA about rental space. She had been teaching dance for years, and was looking to open her own dance studio. The in-progress Jefferson School seemed like a natural place to hold classes, Maschmeier said, because of its space, location and the WCIA's focus on making programs available to neighborhood kids.
After a successful season, and two sold-out Nutcracker performances with students from her classes at Jefferson and other dancers, Maschmeier was able to renovate and open her own studio, The Dance Scene. Since the beginning of the year, she's been offering classes to a broad age range of students there — including about half of the students that had taken classes with her at Jefferson.
Benzonelli called Maschmeier's classes "wildly successful," and a perfect example of how the center can help kids and promote business.
It's what Evans called community buy-in, and a big reason why the improvement association is taking things a little slower and involving the neighborhood every step of the way. Even if it's harder to organize, and only sometimes more cost effective, bringing people in to brainstorm, build, maintain and put the school to use returns that investment to the community, Evans said.
At this point, most of the center's income is from the groups that rent the facility. The bike kitchen, which refurbishes bikes in exchange for money or volunteer hours, occupies a room in the south wing of the building. The Redwood Community Action Agency board of directors meets at Jefferson. Parent Voices, a parent advocacy group, does too. And a Girl Scouts troop. Plus a host of music, dance and other community courses. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence meet there on Sunday mornings.
The county Department of Health and Human Services funds the Family Resource Center on the campus and pays for Benzonelli's assistant. The USDA pays for the group's new summertime lunch program for youth, including a chef and food security specialist position. Two part-time workers from the Boys and Girls Club help the afterschool program, which operates day-long during the summer.
In the three years since the WCIA purchased Jefferson School, Benzonelli and Evans say frustrations from that time have been all but forgotten. In 2010, the organization had been negotiating a deal with the city of Eureka in which the city would buy the building and lease it to the organization. Three newly elected city council members — Lance Madsen, Marian Brady and Mike Newman — shelved purchase of the building in early 2011. The neighborhood was incensed.
But tempers have cooled, and lessons have been learned. "The one thing that we learned is that politics is a poison pill," Benzonelli said. "We do not take sides."
Benzonelli said she enforces an "absolute ban" on politics and campaigning involving the project, as any political clout the school project could lend isn't worth jeopardizing what it has accomplished. "This is hallowed ground," she said. Mike Newman — who had campaigned on ending the city's involvement with the project — attended a playground building ceremony this year, Evans said, and was welcomed.
With maybe a hint of unspoken "I told you so," Benzonelli said there has been less graffiti, fewer broken windows since the association bought the building and the community reinvested in the property. "Every year we grow. We're adaptable. The image of this neighborhood is changing with every window fixed. People have to tell a new story."
The association is in talks with College of the Redwoods — a rival for the property before the WCIA purchased it — to build an infant-toddler center and offer student training opportunities. Eventually, Benzonelli hopes a charter school will take over the south wing of the school. "Ultimately we would like to see elementary education available to kids on the west side again."
That's all possible, she said, with the continued investment of the neighbors, businesses and nonprofits that have been committed so far. Cumulative work by the community added up quickly.
"You have to give a little and you never know what it's going to turn into," Benzonelli said. "I never think, 'That's not going to help,' anymore."