“We’ve been working with the Merrill neighborhood consistently with different initiatives since 2007, but this gave us the opportunity to have a permanent space,” Perry said. “We’ve been doing housing rehab. We have a community garden (in the neighborhood). We’ve been working with the neighborhood watch group for quite some time, but this allowed us to have a daily presence in the neighborhood.”
Community Action Executive Director Cecilia Dever said Merrill Center staff and board members approached them about buying the facility last year.
“When the Merrill Center staff and board contacted us about possibly purchasing the center, I brought it back to my board,” Dever said. “At the time we voted, we believed it fit within our mission, and we decided to maintain the services at the center.”
Perry said little work had to be done to the building to prepare for the reopening. He said officials also communicated with residents to inform them that the center was reopening.
“The building was in very good shape for the most part,” Perry said. “We did some painting. We did some de-cluttering and moving staff in and getting our Internet up and running, getting computers up and running and figuring out what worked and didn’t work. The other part of it was reaching out to the community so they knew that we had purchased (the center) and we were reopening it and that programming was going to restart right away.”
The center offers programs for children between the ages of 6 and 12 and for senior citizens.
“The Merrill Center means a lot to the people in this neighborhood,” Perry said. “When the doors closed, there were a lot of people who were hurt and sad and concerned and worried about the seniors and children in the community. The community wanted the Merrill Center, and we wanted to make sure the doors were reopened. We needed the space, and we needed the programming. It’s the neighborhood hub.”
The center’s after-school program is held from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, when students receive assistance with their homework and participate in games and activities.
“The kids learn socialization skills. We have a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club. So, the Boys and Girls Club staff comes in every afternoon and runs programming for the kids,” Perry said. “We send staff to Merrill Elementary School every day and pick the kids up after school and walk them here as a group to make sure everyone gets here safely.”
Perry said the after-school program already is at capacity with 35 children, but a waiting list has been established.
“We’re already at our limit. We’re really excited,” Perry said. “The parents of the community have responded and have notified other parents. I think the best part is how supportive the rest of the community has been about us reopening, how appreciative everybody has been and how respectful everyone has been. It’s genuine support. People are genuinely happy that we’ve reopened the center and that Community Action is in charge of it.”
Dever said some residents have suggested that the after-school program also be offered Fridays.
“We’ve said let’s get the program up and running and then we can see about that,” Dever said.
Betsy Schroeder, principal at Merrill Elementary School, said she is pleased that the center has reopened because it gives students a safe place to visit after school.
“We’re very excited about the Merrill Community Center reopening,” Schroeder said. “It meets the needs of our neighborhood. Many of our students participate in the after-school program. Having the center gives students a safe place to go after school, and it allows them to participate in activities.”
The center offers programs for senior citizens from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Activities include bingo, health education programs and field trips.
“The biggest benefit for (the seniors) is that they can get connected to other seniors, and it allows them to be in a safe place,” Perry said. “They know they can walk through the doors on program days, and they’re going to be treated with dignity and respect. They’re going to be appreciated. They’re going to have the opportunity to interact with their peers and learn some things that they may have not been exposed to.”
Perry said about eight seniors have participated.
“Word is starting to spread, and seniors are starting to recruit other seniors. Our target is 25 seniors, ultimately,” Perry said. “All of the seniors in the program were in the program before. Several of the kids were here before. It’s really nice that they’ve been back.”
Community Action’s Personal Responsibility and Education program staff and Neighborhood Revitalization and Stabilization Areas staff also are located at the center. The NRSA program helps residents find affordable housing, and the PREP program educates students ages 11 to 19 about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy.
“In the first five years of (PREP), the teenage pregnancy rate in Beloit was lowered by 22 percent, and they give PREP some of that credit,” Perry said.
More programs could be added in the future.
“As we connect with our partners and talk to the community about what their needs are, over time we will add more programs here,” Perry said. “We always assess what we’re doing as an agency overall. Whatever the community needs is what we will try to respond to. What their greatest need is, is what we’re looking for.”
Perry said Community Action wouldn’t have purchased the Merrill Community Center without grant funding from the United Way Blackhawk Region.
“United Way gave us some of the initial funding to get this place up and running, so we definitely want to acknowledge them,” Perry said. “It was their support of Community Action that allowed us to purchase the center. We approached them about purchasing the Merrill Community Center, and they were very receptive.”
For more information about the Merrill Community Center’s programs, call 608-313-1300 or go to community-action.org.