‘We’re going to move forward’: Community center expansion plan revived after Tops shooting | Local News

Even before the May 14 hate crime that killed 10 black neighbors at their local Tops Markets store, Sheila Hamilton and her daughter, Jetaun Jones, were on a mission to revive the community center founded by their mother and grandmother, Dorothy J. Collier.

Collier, an East Side community activist and force of nature, died at age 72 in 2010 and many of the youth and family programs she ran in the large brick building at 118 E. Utica St. had diminished without it.

By the time Covid-19 hit, the Dorothy J. Collier Community Center had returned to its original role as a senior center, with Hamilton and Jones in leadership roles. They have managed to continue a seniors meal program with curbside pickup and social programs via Zoom during the pandemic.

They had reopened for in-person activities and were setting up programs for young people, including a free summer camp for children, when the racist shooting a few blocks away targeted their predominantly black community.

“I can’t even describe what it did to us,” Jones said from behind the desk in her office at the Collier Center. “But somehow we said, ‘We’re going to move on. “”

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As the couple planned new programs, applied for grants and sought out volunteers, they marveled at how easy Collier made it. “It felt like whatever she got her hands on, she got the chance to make it work,” Hamilton said.

“She had an administrative gift,” Jones added.

Hamilton and her daughter inherited Dorothy’s willingness to help, and they found a kindred spirit in an Amherst mother who stepped up after the mass shooting.

World Central Kitchen has flown in to deliver emergency food aid to a neighborhood already considered a food desert before its only supermarket temporarily closed. Lauren Celenza, mother of two and former teacher, helped organize the local World Central Kitchen site and became a daily volunteer.

As adults toured the site outside the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, Celenza grew concerned for the children in tow. The corner of Jefferson Avenue and East Utica Street became a gathering place where people could eat hot meals and produce, but also catch up with grieving neighbors and exchange news, hugs and handshakes. The children were bored and started running underfoot.

Celenza took care of entertaining the children. She organized the Jefferson Community Kids Spot and recruited friends to bring games, crafts, books and sidewalk chalk to the library steps.

Hamilton was passing with flyers for Friends Inc. summer camp and stopped at the small bubble-adorned play area of ​​a machine. She introduced herself to the red-haired woman who seemed to be in charge.

Celenza shared her desire to continue helping children in the community grow and heal with the help of volunteers who responded in the aftermath of the shooting. Hamilton shared his vision to expand the community center just a few blocks from where they were.

A collaboration was born.

“I went and sat with her where the kids were playing and liked it right away,” Jones said.

They invited Celenza to the three-story building that was named after Collier when he died. Its second floor had a huge community space and classrooms that could accommodate the six-week summer camp they planned to start on July 11.

The rooms needed cleaning, sprucing up and furnishing with teaching materials, books, toys and climbing structures for motor play. Celenza organized a clean-up weekend on June 25 and 26 that brought together 50 volunteers to prepare the place for camp.

“It’s magic,” Hamilton said. “Lauren can really bring people together. She has a heart for people and for helping, and that’s what we really needed here.

Hamilton and Jones say they had a heart of their own for the help of Collier, a well-known community activist in the 1960s who “was in the trenches of the civil rights movement,” Hamilton said.

Collier then took a paid position with WNY’s Community Action Organization. She had six children from her first two marriages and welcomed many more to a large house on Humboldt Parkway. She also took in seniors, Hamilton said.

In the mid-1980s, Collier launched Friends of the Elderly in a storefront on Jefferson Avenue across from where Tops now stands. Ten years later, his friend, then Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, started a community block grant project to repair a former Police Athletic League building in East Utica that was in such disrepair that a falling brick had struck and killed a pedestrian.

Masiello offered Collier to use the building for his programs, which grew to include after-school tutoring programs for young people as well as music, dance, and art groups. Friends of the Elderly became Friends Inc., a community hub with “a bit of everything,” Jones said.

For 20 years before his death, Collier ran the center with the help of his many connections.

“His whole purpose in life was to help people in his community be the best they could be,” Hamilton said. “I still meet people who tell me that my mother went to court with them, or that she gave them money or clothes. She never talked about it. »

Collier remained involved even when she underwent dialysis the last two years of her life. Then its volunteer board of directors kept things going for a while, but the youth programs disappeared.

Hamilton, a retiree from the state Office of Child and Family Services and chair of the board of Friends, Inc., took her mother’s place. She spent the pandemic dreaming of breathing new life into the community center. Her daughter, born from a career as a designer and model in New York, agreed to become executive director.

The center is home to the Erie County Stay Fit Meals for Seniors program which serves hot lunches on weekdays; a free food pantry on Wednesdays, a book club; free line dancing lessons at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays; and Bible study and education seminars. The first Friday fish fries are held as monthly fundraisers, although the first after the mass shooting saw the center donate 125 dinners.

The free summer camp for K-6 students has almost reached its goal of 25 children and will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays from July 11 to August 19. The center is looking to hire a full-time teacher for the camp. and teachers for an after-school program and licensed pre-K daycare in the fall, Hamilton said.

One of Celenza’s buddies, Joe’l Staples, who teaches music therapy at SUNY Buffalo State, designed the summer camp program with “zones” kids can visit to engage in fun but educational math, ELA and reading, games and activities, and relaxation spaces, Staples said.

The walls are mostly bare, expecting children’s artwork. Staples and Kim Kamper-DeMarco, a psychology professor at Buffalo State, mapped out a space to share circles where kids can get to know each other.

“A sense of community is needed, and a sense of belonging is needed, now more than ever,” Staples said. “And when you have kids from different schools, they might not know each other, but we can have that circle space and be our own weird little family.”

Last week, Jones and Hamilton learned that Friends, Inc. had won an AARP Community Challenge grant to hold monthly Jazz Night gatherings to bring the community together for food, music, activities, and guest speakers. public bodies. The first Jazz Night event will be a Caribbean Night tentatively scheduled for July 29.

Now the women plan to restore a functional kitchen to hold cooking classes. Jones plans to introduce young people to sewing and fashion design. The center is soliciting donations of healthy snacks for a backpack pantry so children can choose foods to take home.

Celenza said the center has enormous potential to connect families to resources. Besides Staples and Kamper-DeMarco, she brought in a literacy specialist, a speech pathologist, and local parents to serve as community liaisons.

“Our perfect vision would be to connect students in the final stages of their degree programs to the center as volunteers,” she said. “Because how these kids heal and try to move on is so important.”

Anyone interested in volunteering with Friends, Inc., applying for teaching and daycare jobs, or seeking program information can email Jones at [email protected] or call 716-882-0602. People can also make donations to the center at dorothyjcolliercommunitycenter.com.

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