Early learning, senior center partnership dissolves

Funding disagreements and other complications led to the senior center taking back the space for the Early Learning Center.

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WALLA WALLA - A partnership between the local senior center and the early learning community has ended.

The Early Learning Center, based at The Center at the Park at Jefferson Park, closed last fall, about a year after first opening its doors to families with young children. The learning center was opened in a rarely used space at the senior center, as the service project of the 2009 Sherwood Trust Community Leadership Class. Class members renovated, furnished and stocked the classroom to serve families of young children, using about $26,000 raised by the class in grants and donations.

An agreement, or memorandum of understanding, was drafted by the leadership class and approved by the senior center board outlining the use of the space, and the center's ability to make the space available at no cost to participants.

Yet disagreements over providing funding for the senior center, long lags between programs and problems in communication appear to be some of the complications that led to the senior center taking the space back.

For class participants, the swift end to the partnership has been a disappointment, as has the loss of what was meant to be a lasting community resource.

"A lot of money was raised to make this happen," said Tim Meliah, one of the leadership class members. "The (senior) center was a great partner, and helped raise money to get it started. To have it fall apart and have their philosophy change is really disappointing."

The unique partnership between a center serving senior citizens and the early learning community was fostered in part by Herschel Fullerton, a Leadership Class of 2009 participant who also served on the senior center's board. Fullerton died Dec. 20, 2010, yet lived to see the Early Learning Center open its doors and serve local families.

"He was definitely the champion," said Samantha Bowen, another leadership class member and program manager for the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition.

The Sherwood Trust Community Leadership program is offered to local community members each year. Class members are tasked with conceiving and implementing a service project to benefit the community as part of the leadership training program. Past projects have included installation of playground equipment, murals and public art.

By choosing to establish an early learning center, the Class of 2009 selected an ambitious but promising project. Class participants said the goal was to provide a space to offer educational program for families with children ages birth to 5, while also providing a space for families with children to meet and play.

With the senior center as a partner, an additional goal emerged to have senior center members utilize the space to interact with grandchildren, with the potential for the room as an "inter-generational" space.

"I think everybody went into it with good intentions," Bowen said. "We wanted to create a multi-generational space where ideally grandma who might have the kids that day had a place to take them that day. It would be a space where these relationships could be built and formed. It just didn't work out that way."

Bowen said her class raised funds to renovate and stock the senior center space for early learning programs. The class secured donations, which were matched by The Sherwood Trust, for a total of about $26,000. The senior center was among the contributors, providing close to $7,000 to fix the room, mainly through the donation and installation of flooring.

"We were big contributors," said Nancy Borgers, comptroller for the senior center. "We wanted to see it happen. But after a while you have to say it's not going to work."

Once the classroom was ready, Bowen, in her role with the coalition, was to work with senior center leaders to find early learning partners to use the classroom. Bowen said Walla Walla Community College's Tot Spot program emerged as an early partner, with interest expressed by Commitment 2 Community and The Moms' Network.

The classroom held an open house June 2010, and Tot Spot was the first program to use the room starting in July. By the start of 2011, the senior center looked to amend the terms of the original agreement.

Senior Center Director Mike Johnson said offering the classroom space for free was no longer an option. The senior center anticipated a large budget deficit for the year and was looking for ways to bring in more funds, he explained.

"The board of trustees said ‘Look, one of the ways we can make some money is being able to charge rent,'" Johnson said.

In a letter dated March 7, 2011, Johnson wrote to Bowen saying the center would start assessing a $25 per day fee, or $50 a week. The fees were to be effective in April and apply to any programs or groups seeking to use the learning center or any other space at the senior center. Fees were to apply to center members and non-members alike.

"We knew that there would be challenges sustaining it, going forward, but we felt we had a good agreement with the (senior) center to maintain that space," Bowen said. "Then things started to get more complicated, mainly when the (senior) center's leaders felt it was time to charge a fee to classes using the space."

Bowen said potential partners were hesitant to utilize a space that had been initially offered for free.

"It caused a lot of the early learning partners to say ‘We'll just wait and see what happens.'" she said.

In June, leaders from both groups met to work at mending the partnership. Although described as a successful meeting, the group leaders did not meet again. Meanwhile, the learning center remained closed.

By September, the senior center board moved to terminate the original memorandum of understanding. Among its reasons, outlined in a resolution approved Sept. 22, was the lack of programming at the center in the previous months, and the belief that no new programs would be utilizing the space that fall.

"At that point the senior center decided that we really needed to use that room for the benefit of our seniors," Borgers said.

Borgers said the senior center is in the process of getting computers and hopes to be up and running around March for a variety of computer courses geared for seniors.

"Which is what we are really here for, is our seniors," she added.

Johnson said the move was a business decision. Through the memorandum of understanding the senior center had agreed to cover the cost of maintenance of the space and the utilities, but no real plan had been put in place to secure donations or funds for the senior center.

Borgers said the arrangement was no longer beneficial to the senior center, whether early learning programs were hosted in the room, or not.

"It was supposed to be the senior center giving everything, and getting nothing in return," Borgers said.

The Center at the Park building is owned by the city of Walla Walla, but the management of the facility is the responsibility of the leaseholder, which is the senior center.

"They control the building use," said Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont. "We lease the facility to them. They're responsible for the operation."

Dumont said he was suprised to learn the Early Learning Center had shut down, but that such action remained at the discretion of senior center leadership.

"No one has told me that program was eliminated," Dumont said. "I'd be disappointed if they eliminated that proposed activity. Other than that I don't have any control or say."

Leadership class member Annie Capestany expressed disappointment and frustration at the outcome of the partnership.

"The members of my class worked hard raising money for this project and doing the work to renovate the space. We intended for the classroom to be available for years, not just one year. Not only was the Learning Center a great opportunity for the seniors at the Center at the Park, but it was a great resource for the families in the Jefferson Park neighborhood and the city as a whole," Capestany wrote in an email.

"The seniors I talked with at the Center at the Park, before the classroom opened, were very excited about having the children in the building. I have to ask, ‘Is the board doing what the members want?'"

Capestany also said the situation is perhaps more disappointing because the classroom was a type of tribute to Fullerton.

"He championed this project when he was president of the board at the Center at the Park and probably worked the hardest of anyone to get it up and running. But, less than three months after his death in December 2010, the center already wanted to change the terms of our agreement regarding the use of the classroom. And, almost exactly one year after his death, the board shut down the classroom and stored away all the donated and purchased furniture and materials.

"Is the board sacrificing the goodwill it had gained in the neighborhood, and the benefits for its members, for the sake of some hoped for room rental fees?"

Bowen said the leadership class has been in touch, with the goal of relocating the learning center to another location. All the supplies remain in storage. Meanwhile, offering activities and a place for families with young children to gather remains a community need.

Bowen said she respected the senior center's decision to run its nonprofit and put its focus on serving the senior population. She lamented the loss of collaboration and the chance to offer the Center at the Park space to community families.

"The idea with the center was it's kind of the center of the community. It's this great central location," Bowen said.

Yet Bowen and Meliah said there is no effort to return to the senior center space.

"I don't think there's any intention of doing that," Meliah said.

Early Learning Center timeline

  • January 2010: The senior center board of directors approves a memorandum of understanding that makes a rarely used room available, free of charge, to early learning classes.
  • June 2010: The leadership class announces the opening of the Early Learning Center at the senior center.
  • July 2010: The first Tot Spot class, geared for families in the neighborhood with children ages birth to 5, starts. Several more sessions are held but are contingent on securing grants.
  • December 2010: Herschel Fullerton, a leadership class member and president of the senior center board, dies.
  • February 2011: The Early Learning Center starts two more sessions of Tot Spot classes. During the class sessions, leadership class members learn the center will begin assessing daily fees.
  • March 2011: A letter is sent to the Early Learning Coalition stating the senior center will start assessing a per-use fee on any activities held in the Early Learning Center, effective in April. The classroom remains unused throughout the summer while the fee issue is resolved.
  • June 2011: Leaders from both sides meet to try to mend the partnership, with the goal of meeting quarterly.
  • September 2011: The senior center board terminates the original memorandum of understanding. Contents of the Early Learning Center are packed up and the room is vacated.
  • January 2012: Senior Center Comptroller Nancy Borgers says the center will soon start holding computer classes for seniors in the former Early Learning Center space.

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