"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."
Twelve-thousand square feet might sound like a lot of space to fill, especially in the warmer months. But staying busy when school's out has never been an issue for the Lussier Community Education Center (LCEC), the green-built community center that opened on the grounds of Jefferson Middle School and Memorial High School nearly six years ago. An evolution of the Wexford Ridge Neighborhood Center, the facility's modern, adaptable space, filled with natural light, buzzes all summer long with programming, most of it geared toward kids.
Bright and early on a typical Tuesday, the joint is jumping as a dozen or so rambunctious preschoolers are painting, playing dress up and exercising their gross motor skills at Play and Learn, the free drop-in facilitated playgroup taking place in the Lussier Community Room, one of the largest of six flexible classroom spaces. A partnership between Madison's Community Coordinated Child Care Inc. and the United Way of Dane County, Play and Learn offers caregivers the chance to interact with their child, while providing access to opportunities they may not otherwise have at home.
"The families that come to Play and Learn really appreciate the variety of activities we offer," says DeBorah Moore, a specialist with the program. "It's great watching parents see their child doing something, like drawing with a marker or counting colored blocks, for the very first time."
Across the hall, the 30 elementary-aged kids enrolled in LCEC's free, full-day summer program are cheerfully boarding the center's 15-passenger van to head over to the nearby Madison Christian Community gardens. While there, as part of a 12-year-old partnership between the two organizations known as Kids in the Garden, these farmers-in-training will spend the next two hours in the faith community's half-acre organic gardens, harvesting, as well as liberally tasting, mustard greens, beets and strawberries.
"Some of the kids are really picky eaters," says Kim Eighmy, the Advent Lutheran Church staffer who manages the program. "I love getting them to try new foods. One of the kids claimed he'd only eat bacon. But you can be pretty crafty with veggies."
Today Eighmy has snuck finely grated zucchini into the chocolate cake she plans to serve during an organized snack break. "There's no way I'm going to let on what's in it before they taste," she says with a smile.
Given the number and sheer energy level of the kids, things seem remarkably calm and well organized at the garden. This is because of people like RayShawn Nash, 22, a lead teacher with LCEC's elementary school program. She's just one of the many staffers who help to keep the program's adult-to-student ratio at a remarkably low 1-to-6. Nash (better known as Ray Ray to the kids) explains that he is the second of six children, "so being around kids comes as second nature to me. A lot of these kids here don't have a male role in their life. Working with them really gives me purpose."
He's been with the center for two years: "I like being part of making this community a better place to live."
According to Paul Terranova, executive director of the Lussier Community Education Center, the concept of community permeates every aspect of the organization's work.
"It's the doing and the giving of ourselves that make us part of a community," he says. "That is what separates a community center like ours from a stereotypical social service agency. We have no clients, customers or consumers. We have people."
The communal feel of the LCEC is not limited to its interactions with the neighborhood it serves. Even the building's administrative office, which houses 15 desks in its open-floor plan, helps vital staff collaboration.
"I love having the open office," says Fernández-O'Brien. "I don't think we'd be able to survive without the constant communication." He continues, "It's easy to ask people around here for help on a project, because we all see the importance of this work."
By noon, the Lussier Community Room has been transformed from the preschool paradise of Play and Learn into a cafeteria where the elementary-aged kids, back from the garden, and their middle school counterparts are enjoying a healthy lunch from the Breakfast Club. The club, a joint social enterprise between LCEC and Memorial High School and part of the Second Harvest Kids Café program, provides vocational training and job opportunities to young adults with disabilities.
Daniel Wood, 18, is spending his first summer here and is thrilled to be learning more about careers in the culinary arts: "I really want to work in a restaurant some day," he says. "And I like making a lot of the meals we serve. The kids, though, would be happy if we had steak and grapes every day. That is definitely the favorite."
After lunch, 30 middle school students participating in the LCEC's summer program gear up to spend the afternoon participating in Badger Bots, a Lego-based robotics offering that enhances key STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills.
But just as the kids settle into their projects, an instructor from the Wisconsin Youth Company's Middle School U program taking place next door at Jefferson comes dashing across the parking lot. The site she had planned on using for campers' fencing lessons the following week has fallen through, and she's hoping that the Lussier Community Education Center might have space to house her swashbucklers for a few afternoons.
"I'm not sure we've had a request for fencers before," says Fernández-O'Brien as he pulls up the master schedule for all of the center's community space. But we'll certainly welcome them if we have any room."