Five Towns Community Center still helping those in need

Lawrence civic resource revs up its programming

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For 111 years, whether it was a settlement house, a trade school, the Inwood Community Center or, since the 1970s, the Five Towns Community Center, the Lawrence facility has been a resource for residents from preschoolers to senior citizens.

The center offers a variety of programs, including a summer camp for youngsters, and hosts a wide range of events — from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s news conference last year to announce the Nassau Expressway renovation project, to the Islamic Council of North America’s Thanksgiving giveaway last month. It sheltered victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and others found desperately needed supplies there.

In 1907, the original occupant of the Lawrence Avenue property was a trade school that was known to community members as a settlement house — one of many projects funded by Five Towns resident Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, the sole executrix of her millionaire husband Russell Sage’s estate after he died in 1906. The current building was constructed in 1972.

At one time, the center housed a health clinic and a senior center, but because of cuts in funding from multiple sources, both are now gone. The most recent executive director of the Five Towns Community Center, Lorenzo Sistrunk, left in October after nearly four years on the job.

Its board of directors, under the leadership of board President Gwynn Campbell, is in the process of searching for a new executive director, while longtime board member Pete Sobol serves in an interim capacity. The absence of a director, however, has not deterred Campbell from efforts to enhance what the center has to offer and to remind the community that it remains an important resource.

“For a long time there was the thought that the center was closing, and there was actually nothing going on, and people got discouraged,” Campbell said, adding that the board is a month into its search for a new executive director. “But that is far from the truth. We have different people in place, and we’re very excited about our athletic programs and creative arts. We’re doing a lot of outreach, and we’re driven by what can we do to help the next person.”

The center provided a opportunity for 30 Five Towns students to earn community service hours in July through a partnership with the Marion & Aaron Gural JCC’s Teens Lead program and a West Hempstead-based nonprofit, What Better Looks Like. At the beginning of the school year, the center started a new youth-services curriculum for students from pre-K through high school, with programs that focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Zen, art and sports and even the tenets of Zen Buddhism — Ms. Young’s Homework Zen Den is run by Inwood resident Sasha Young.

Another center offering is the Workforce Readiness Program, which helps high school students prepare to find jobs or apply to college. AT&T awarded the program a $5,000 grant in August as part of its Aspire Program. And with a growing Hispanic population in the Five Towns, the center helped create the Hispanic Association, which meets monthly at the center.

“We’d like to have more community participation and programs,” said Sobol, who, before becoming interim executive director, was a member of the facility’s advisory board. “We’re looking to increase the funding we have and make it a destination for our youth.”

Nassau County leases the building at 270 Lawrence Ave. to the center. A loss of $400,000 in county funding in 2012 severely reduced its budget and forced it to shut down its senior center. These days the facility supports its programs with grants from the state and donations. Campbell said that it is looking to expand the donor base by sending a letter of appeal to corporate and private philanthropies.

“The community center is very important to this community,” Barbara Thompson, an Inwood resident since 1969, said. “It was the place that we sent people to for resources from health benefits to financial difficulties and youth services. It’s an integral part of this community.” Thompson described it as a “pillar.” Her daughter went through the center’s Head Start program, which remains one of its primary services.

Campbell and Sobol, along with the board, said they are intent on restoring the facility to what Sobol called “the glory days” and “even advance it further to be the best community center in the state.”

Thompson said she believes the community wants the center to revive the senior center and the health clinic. To do that, Campbell said, it needs to a build a strong leadership infrastructure and maintain the building. “In the short term, we want to bring everyone together to let them know we have a very promising and exciting future,” she said.

For more about the center, go to www.fivetownscommunitycenter.org.