SPRINGFIELD — Overloaded with his backpack, jacket, mask and latest art project, 8-year-old Logan Tuttle chatted happily about what he loves most about the South End Community Center.
“We just have a bunch of fun,” said Logan, who has been coming to the center since he was 4.
Logan has spent not only his after-school hours there, but also full school days, as the center offered supervised remote learning for families who needed child care during the coronavirus pandemic.
The South End Community Center faced hard times even before COVID-19. Its original building, a former armory on Howard Street, was heavily damaged by the tornado on June 1, 2011. It took six years for the center to get its new home on Marble Street. Last year, it was forced to close again, this time for three months due to the pandemic.
“For us it was deja vu. The tornado happens and we have to shut down, the pandemic happens and it’s another shutdown, but because of the tornado we were more prepared,” said executive director Wesley Jackson. “We were ready and we knew what to do. That transition was a bit easier for us because we’ve been there.”
Jackson has been executive director for about four years, but he has been on staff since 2006. He was working the day of the tornado.
“It was a regular day for us with different programming going on throughout the building, and when I saw the alerts on my phone about a tornado watch, coming from the South I knew it was real and I took that seriously,” he said.
Everyone in the building, about 80 people, moved into the basement.
“About 30 seconds later chaos ensued,” Jackson said. “You could feel the pressure in the building and then an explosion, and then the roof came down and the windows started to break. Some kids were stuck on the bus and the bus driver on there made sure they got down on the floor. There were scratches and scrapes, but no major injuries or deaths and we are so thankful for that.”
Jackson said the staff, including former executive director Patrice Swan, and the center’s board of directors immediately started planning how they could continue to serve students while decisions were made about the damaged building.
“We worked with (the federal and state emergency management agencies) and our insurance as well as the city. It was months of meetings, but during that time we still had to serve kids,” he said.
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Northern Educational Service and Bay Path University were a few of the organizations that offered to help. The city offered school buildings for programming. Administrative staff worked out of a trailer until they relocated to space on East Columbus Avenue.
For six years the community center operated this way until the new $10.3 million facility opened in 2017. The old community center was purchased by MGM Springfield and renovated before its grand opening in 2018. Before the pandemic the building was being used as a small entertainment venue with additional meeting spaces.
“Two or three days after the tornado we had our annual golf tournament fundraiser. At that event our board chairman at the time said we would rebuild by any means necessary, and those were the marching orders from the start. We were going to make it work. There was never a time when we though it was over. We had to be resilient,” Jackson said.
Today the center serves more than 200 children who participate in athletic programs including basketball, baseball, soccer and volleyball. The remote learning program has about 60 students, and there are about 40 in the after-school programs. A teen program serves 50 kids, and the upcoming summer camp, which is eight weeks of programming, will serve about 300 children.
The center’s indoor and outdoor basketball courts and fitness equipment are also available to the public. “They can pay $1 or $2 to come in and use the court for the day or to use the gym,” Jackson said.
When the pandemic hit, Jackson said, many community organizations met to discuss how they would serve children whose families had jobs that required them to go in regardless of quarantine.
“There was a definite need. We know families who don’t have reliable internet or it’s hard for them to be home because they have to go to work, so it was an automatic decision,” he said.
Logan has adapted to remote learning and said being at the community center has given him the chance to hang out with other kids. His family has opted to let him finish out the school year doing remote learning at the center.
“When I come here I get to have fun and make new friends and I get to see Ms. Rocky every day,” Logan said, referring to Raquel “Rocky” Rivera, the after-school programming coordinator.
“You definitely have to have a lot of patience,” she said, laughing. “It was very challenging at first with school being online. It was new to them just as it was new to us, but we were able to work through all of that and communicate with the teachers to help us get through it.”
The community center works with many kids in the care of the state Department of Children and Families. Rivera said those children need some sense of stability, which the community center provides.
“I want to be here to show them that there are people who care and to give them that love that they are missing sometimes,” she said. “Everyone calls me their second mom here.”
Rivera started as a receptionist at the center 15 years ago, later becoming a counselor. She said the center has brought her professional fulfillment.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, and this comes close to that,” she said.
Jackson, Rivera and the rest of the staff work to ensure families — not just the kids — feel welcome at the center. With the South End Citizens Council and the C3 policing unit, they’ve hosted movie nights, community basketball games and informational sessions.
Police officer Anthony DiSantis, part of the C3 unit, said the community center is a nice environment where officers and youth can interact and develop trust.
“We can talk to them about bike safety and things to be aware of when they are walking to and from school, even simple topics like crossing the road. We try to touch even on the little things,” he said.
Moving forward, Jackson hopes to engage a new generation of pre-teens who missed out on the community center when they were 5 or 6 years old and the tornado destroyed the original building.
“We want to reach a larger audience and offer more community-based neighborhood services like we did before the pandemic,” he said. “We are hitting social media hard and we are pounding the pavement too to get even more neighborhood kids coming to the center.”