by Pia K. Hansen
The crack of a bat and the cheers of a late-fall baseball game mingle with the hum of traffic and the faraway slapping of waves on the river's banks. At 3 pm, it's already getting cold in the shadow of the Maple Street Bridge, and little clouds of breath follow the kids running around Glover Field. The Peaceful Valley Community Center, an old military barracks, looks like it's about ready to explode. It's stuffed to the rafters with art supplies, books, computers, food, used clothes to be given away and, well, people. The center has been around since the 1970s, but has fallen on hard times as it struggles to fund programs and a possible expansion.
"It gets kind of loud in here," says Kathy Kalk, the center's AmeriCorps volunteer, who shows me around. "A lot of people come and go all the time."
She's absolutely right. The center, a part of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, is the smallest community center in Spokane. One of its most successful programs, the kids' program, lost all funding this summer and a handful of volunteers like Kalk is putting on a fundraiser on Dec. 1 to keep the program afloat.
Outside, James Hunt, the interim director of the kids' program, is taking a break from playing on one of the baseball teams.
"The kids' program is free, but it's not like a daycare," he explains. "We have a home work center, and we do tutoring for some of the students here, but it's more of an after-school place. After school we have about 10 kids every day, and in the summer we can have as many as 30. It varies a lot."
The program served 319 children during the 78 hours (20 days) it was open in September. Kids in the program go on short trips in the center's van, rock climbing, fishing and hiking.
"Besides giving the kids something to do, I believe it gives them a sense of community," says Hunt. "It helps build good personalities when they interact, and it provides an alternative. They can do something other than watch TV."
But this summer, the center lost the $15,000 in prevention grants that has kept the program running.
"We call them prevention grants because the money goes to fund programs that keep kids and teens from using drugs and smoking," says Mark Reilly, the director of the center. "We just lost the funding from one day to another. And then the state legislature, you know, they got that tobacco settlement and part of that was supposed to cover these programs, but they blew the money on everything else. Now there's not enough left for us."
Saturday's fundraiser is aiming to keep the kids program going through the rest of the year, he adds. The Community Center Board of Directors has agreed to fund the kids' program through the winter, after which the program will have to find its own funding.
The Parks and Recreation Department takes care of maintenance and pays the utilities at the center, while everything else is funded by grants and donations.
"Without the $15,000, there is no kids' program. The other money we get is earmarked for specific programs, we can't just cross over and use it for something else," says Reilly, who conducts the interview seated in a vacant wheelchair -- the only other chair in the small room where we meet. Outside, kids run back and forth in the hallway and a small group of disabled people are working on craft projects in the main room.
Reilly says the community center especially fills a void in the lives of many of the children in the area.
"Our kids are bused clear up to Jefferson" Elementary, he explains. "They take the kids from one of the poorest areas in Spokane and bus them up to one of the wealthiest. The kids can't stay after school for sports, because the bus leaves. They can't make friends up there or participate in other school activities, because their parents don't have a way to take them up there. At least they can come down here, until their parents come home."
Peaceful Valley has always been a low-income neighborhood -- statistics show it is the poorest neighborhood in the city. The handful of turn-of-the-century homes that remain the heart of the community around the Water Street and Cedar intersection are charming and eccentric, but it's obvious that most of them have been maintained on a shoestring budget for many, many years. A few newer homes and duplexes in different stages of construction dot the landscape.
In 1984, Peaceful Valley was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and some homes were brought up-to-date by Community Development grants. Small grocery markets have come and gone, as have a few other stores, but none are left today.
In 1985, Peaceful Valley residents wanted to put an end to the increasing gentrification of their neighborhood -- which is located a short stroll from the heart of downtown -- by developing the Peaceful Valley Design Plan. This plan had as its goal "to revitalize, not redevelop" the area, and it was approved by the city. Today it looks like someone forgot about that plan, and it's obvious that not only the neighbors but also the people who work at the community center have gotten used to getting by on nothing.
Peaceful Valley still has a reputation as an bohemian kind of neighborhood, a legacy the Community Center carries forward with many of its community-oriented programs.
"On Friday we have the Enough to Eat program. We go to the food bank and get whatever they have, bring it back here and then people come in and help themselves," says Reilly. "We are getting a huge number of people all week, actually, I'd say on most days we do have food." The center also has a laundry facility and free access to computers, some of which have Internet connections.
"We get clothes from the Union Gospel Mission for the clothes bank. They have been magnificent in helping us," says Reilly, pointing to the piles of clothes right inside the door.
But believe it or not, it's the same outreach programs and communal spirit that rub some neighbors the wrong way.
At the Peaceful Valley Neighborhood Association meeting on Oct. 10, a letter with several complaints was presented by the then-chair of the association, Kathy Thamm.
In the letter, Peaceful Valley residents complained about thefts from their porches and cars and an increased number of transients roaming the streets. In the letter, some neighbors said that transients are stealing mail or using residents' addresses to claim Social Security checks. Also, the free clothes and litter from the Enough to Eat Program is cast along the banks of the river and in the bushes and trees surrounding Glover Field and underneath the Maple Street Bridge. Some said they had called the police to break up fights in the Community Center parking lot and that people were camping out there.
Thamm didn't return phone calls asking for a comment.
Reilly flat out dismisses these complaints.
"It's simply not true. They make these allegations, but there are no facts behind them. There are some people out there who are always looking to trying to close the center," he says. "I've called the police department, and they say they have never been down here to break up fights. Yes, maybe some of the clothes are left around here, but not every day. That's blown way out of proportion."
He says the center has community support.
"I feel like we have good support. We had 50 to 60 letters of support that people wrote to us just last year," says Reilly.
The community center is crowded, but there's a thread of organization that runs through the apparent chaos. Ironically enough, the center's small scale keeps it from getting some of the badly needed development grants. "You have to have so many square feet per child to qualify for some of the grants, and we just don't have that," says Reilly.
The expansion of the center has a price tag of about $200,000. And though money is being raised for that as well, the balance is barely above $2,000 today. Reilly seems pretty overwhelmed by plans and ideas, but also determined to see at least some of them come through.
"It would be great with more space," he says. "It's hard some days, but we are just trying to help the people down here, that's all."
The Peaceful Valley Children's Program benefit dinner is on Saturday,
Dec. 1, from 6-9 pm, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, located at 4340 W.
Fort George Wright Drive. Tickets: $15. Please preregister. Call: 624-8634.