Tarrant County Comissioner Roy Brooks virtually grew up at Bethlehem Community Center.
“I went to after-school activities there, went to summer day camp there, learned to swim there,” Brooks said Friday.
Since it opened in 1939, the center has been a safe gathering spot for kids and teens, which was especially crucial before the Public Accommodations Act of 1964, “back during Jim Crow,” Brooks said.
“Bethlehem was the place you could go and be nurtured by adults, be with other kids, play, spend time.”
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But after 75 years, “Bethlehem’s roof leaks, there’s no air conditioning, the layout is ineffective for classroom teaching, storage is makeshift and spaces are cramped,” Celia Esparza, CEO of United Community Centers, said.
On Friday, Brooks, Esparza and other officials gathered with kids who use the center to break ground on a new, 16,000-square-foot building at 941 Evans Ave., about a block from the existing center.
The groundbreaking was staged behind a historic 1930s-era building that architect Karl Komatsu said would be restored as part of the new center.
“It’s about 4,000 square feet, and we’re preserving it,” Komatsu said. “The new part, about 16,000 square feet, will be similar, to be compatible with the neighborhood. The leadership of the city wanted a facility that would blend together and reinforce the Evans/Rosedale neighborhood.”
The Fort Worth City Council allocated $4.965 million in federal Housing and Urban Development money for the project, Esparza said. She is head of the city’s umbrella organization for Bethlehem Center, Polytechnic Center on Avenue I and Wesley Center on North Crump Street.
“The winning bid for construction alone was just under $3 million,” Esparza said. “Altogether, it's right at a $5 million project including property purchase, design and construction.”
Additional money for furniture, fixtures and equipment for the new building came from the Bethlehem Capital Campaign Committee, a 2-to-1 matching grant from the Rainwater Charitable Foundation and individual donors, Esparza said.
When the new center is finished next spring, it will outperform the 10,946-square-foot facility it replaces in almost every way, Esparza said.
A 2,317-square-foot gym not only will increase the center’s after-school and day-camp capacity from 65 children to 107, but also will be a multipurpose room, Esparza said.
“We want the gym to be a place where kids can run around and play, but also, if people want to use it for meetings, they can,” Esparza said.
“With a new kitchen, we’ll be able to use it for receptions, church meetings and other gatherings. We also feed our children a hot evening meal during the school year, and three meals during the summer.”
The center’s food pantry will almost double in size — increasing the 3,000-pounds-per-week storage capacity to about 6,000 pounds, Esparza said.
“Right now, we’re serving 180 families per week,” Esparza said. “That will probably go up to about 220 families per week.”
The clothing room, which has challenged volunteers’ ability to sort inventory, will not only be larger in the new building but will be organized like a clothing store, Esparza said.
And although the center doesn’t provide basic-needs assistance, the new building will be wired to accommodate computers that will help social workers refer clients to services available elsewhere, Esparza said.
“They’ll be able to do these things faster,” she said.
In his remarks, Brooks said it was appropriate that the groundbreaking was on the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — April 4, 1968.
“Without dwelling overmuch on Dr. King’s death, we acknowledge that 46 years ago today this community and indeed our world lost a warrior who lived a life of service and who dedicated his life to the causes of justice, opportunity and freedom,” Brooks said. “Like Dr. King, Bethlehem Center has lived a life of service to this community.”
The scheduling wasn’t a coincidence, said the center’s director, Carolyn Yusuf. The ceremony’s theme — “Realizing the Dream: 75 Years in the Making” — was her idea to recognize the center’s 75 years of service, the promise of greater service in the new building it will move into and the debt owed to King.
“It’s our dream that the center will continue to be a beacon to the youth on the south side,” Yusuf said. “Children will always have a place to come and grow up to be the best that they might be. This place will help you find a way to become your best you.”
The new center will mean sustainability, Brooks said.
“The facility will be available in the community to the present generation of kids and to the future generations of kids at least for the next 50 years,” Brooks said.
“It will still be that safe, nurturing gathering place where kids learn to exercise leadership, to decide who they are as people, and form their value systems under the guidance of caring adults.”