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The Jefferson Community Center is Turning Up the Heat 

click to enlarge On a sunny Friday morning, kids harvest snap peas, blackberries and strawberries      in the community garden

Katie Rodriguez

On a sunny Friday morning, kids harvest snap peas, blackberries and strawberries in the community garden

It's a sunny Friday afternoon at the Jefferson Community Center in Eureka when the kids begin their afternoon harvesting. The garden beds bear a bountiful display of summer produce: kale, chard, snap peas, tomatoes and artichokes, all adorned in vibrant leaves. Raspberry and blackberry brambles crawl up the sides of the fence adjacent to the garden area and graze a fruit tree, the first of its kind here, just beginning to produce what will soon become Honey Crisp apples this fall.

The garden, which hosts a group of kids every Friday at noon learning how to tend to the soil, didn't used to look so lively. Before 2012, when the Westside Community Improvement Association bought the property (formerly the Westside Community Group), it was an abandoned elementary school covered in graffiti, surrounded by a chain link fence and a sea of gravel. Jefferson Elementary School had been sitting empty on the west side of Eureka for about five years when members of the community decided to take matters into their own hands. "Fight Neighborhood Blight!" were the words that began to appear on flyers and posters around the neighborhood, and soon community organizers began to piece together a vision of what the area could become, and how to best utilize a space poised to become the linchpin of the community.

Purchasing the property did not come without a long and arduous process, in part spawned by political transitions that created stalemates for the growing number of vociferous community members dedicated to revitalizing the space ("The Council that Kicked the Hornets' Nest," Jan. 13, 2011).

"We had an intentional, persistent presence of neighbors and we began to take ownership of the space, even though it wasn't ours," says Heidi Benzonelli, president of the board of WCIA. "But quite frankly, it was ours. It is the community commons. It was so when it was a school and it is so again as a community center."

Today, the Westside Community Improvement Association exists as a nonprofit devoted to facilitating programs to fulfill the underserved needs of the community. Committed to propelling this community-level change, the nonprofit has worked diligently to resurrect the property, build a community park, run a family resource center, provide after-school services and offer classes and training courses.

From the start, Benzonelli knew that providing food for the community was going to be one of their most important services. "The very first thing [we did with food] was my husband serving hot dogs off his tailgate when we showed up to do landscaping," she says. "We just knew that if the neighbors and the kids were going to come, they were going to be hungry, so we just fed everybody who came and helped."

Getting the kitchen going after purchasing the property was no easy feat. Years of vacancy brought rust and mortar to the drains, there were outdated appliances and a laundry list of items to inspect and bring up to code. CalFresh, a program offered by the California Department of Social Services, was instrumental in making progress with the kitchen, providing the WCIA with a $44,000 grant that enabled them to kick off summer food programs and serve to the public. Wasting no time in putting the kitchen to use, just a few days after receiving their permits, Benzonelli and volunteers moved swiftly to provide a "burrito bar" for the 240 volunteers assisting with the community center playground build.

That was in 2013. Since then, the food service offerings have evolved into a full-fledged, year-long rotating list of programs.

"The kitchen is really the heartbeat of the community center," shares Benzonelli, standing amid the kids getting plates of sauteed vegetables, rice, fresh watermelon slices and tangerines for lunch, all made from scratch. Throughout the year, the Jefferson Community Center provides anyone under the age of 18 with free lunches and often dinners as well, focusing on providing healthy, local foods. "We want to inspire people to think about when produce is in season and think, 'When you look at the tomato on your sandwich and it's out of season, where did that come from?'"

The Jefferson Project also has a hand in food distribution services. Benzonelli manages several small teams that vend to Alder Grove Charter School and North Coast Children's Services, deliver produce boxes to seniors and work in tandem with the North Coast Grower's Association to use the community center as a distribution site. Together, they work to provide people with Harvest Boxes — affordable, multi-farm-sourced medlies of local, non-GMO produce, similar to a CSA box. Much of the produce comes from the garden, local farmers and local gardeners, and it is supported by CalFresh and the Food for People food bank in Eureka.

The culinary cooking classes have been a huge success thus far, doubling as a way to engage the community in learning how to cook different styles of cuisines and raise money for other local nonprofits in need. Last month, Journal contributor Wendy Chan hosted a sold-out, live cooking class teaching people how to make Zongzi — traditional Chinese sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves and stuffed with braised pork belly, shrimp and duck eggs ("Wrapping up Zongzi," June 10). "We'll make 40 meals and then the people in the cooking class will get 10 of them. The other 30 we sell," says Benzonelli. "We split that money with another nonprofit. We never hog it all to ourselves." During the pandemic, profits from these fundraisers were given to local entities, including North Coast Repertory Theatre, Food for People and the Boys and Girls Club. Future events will include more classes with Chan, as well as an Indian cooking class with Rupali Brown of Pali Yoga.

But the Jefferson Community Center is just getting started, taking their food services to the next level. The program will be called Jefferson Cafe, or "J-café," and will be run by Benzonelli and Chelsea Sterling, the chef and food service director. "The goal here is really to change the hospitality and service industry in Humboldt County by improving and increasing it," says Benzonelli. "We're going to be focusing on serving local food where we're providing local talent and training a local workforce. It's about sustainability and resilience of our own community."

The Headwaters Fund, which seeks to provide support for projects that enrich people trying to get back into the local workforce, provided an economic development grant to get J-Cafe up and running, and to begin training teams and disenfranchised workers for the service industry. The grant has been instrumental in helping Benzonelli and Sterling begin to beautify the space, providing new flooring for the "backstage" classroom in the community center, which sits adjacent to the kitchen and will be renovated and transformed into what will feel like a real concession area. The cafe already has a full espresso machine, juicer, cash register and stainless steel tables — all bought and repurposed from a recently closed down cafe in Rio Del. "We basically bought the whole cafe," says Sterling with a laugh.

Before J-Cafe is fully open to the public, the space will be used for both a Career Technical Education program, where kids will get to learn more about culinary arts and entrepreneurialism, as well as an open-mic night to host community discussions. "We call it 'Taboo café,' where kids can talk about things that are normally hush-hush," says Benzonelli.

The sky's the limit for the Jefferson Community Center, whose ever evolving list of programs and services operate as a positive force in meeting the wants and needs of the community. "We don't do this all ourselves. There's a lot of support out there in the community. Even if it's a little support, that's what makes it all work. Many hands make up light work at the community center," says Benzonelli.

Those interested in volunteering or working with the community center can send a message via Facebook, call 497-6280 or email lets.buy.jefferson@gmail.com.

Katie Rodriguez (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California. Much of her work focuses on environmental, cultural and outdoor news. Reach her at www.krodcreates.com or on Instagram @Katertottz.

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