Original article by Tracey Drury, Buffalo Business First, February 22
Walk through the former St. Gerard Parish Hall and School and you get a real sense of what things were like in the ’50s when the site was the neighborhood hangout.
Gerard Place CEO David Zapfel leads a tour of the Bailey Avenue space, pointing out in the lower level where families spent time in the bowling alley and upstairs where 20-foot blackboards still line the walls of giant classroms where students once spent their days.
Next year when renovations are complete, the 30,000-square-foot building will be reborn as an education and community center, with the entire second floor dedicated to training and recreational space for individuals who live next door in the agency’s residential programs and for others in the community.
“We want to bring families back, with basketball leagues, dance and other programs, but also feed people by partnering with Friends of the Night People,” Zapfel said.
“I see this becoming the center of the community,” he said.
Plans call for renovating but keeping the former school gymnasium, with other parts of the building hosting workforce training for allied health professions and medical billing jobs, in a locale that’s convenient for neighbors. The building will have community meeting space with room for 60 people where block clubs and groups can get together.
“We want to help them move themselves out of poverty, and now we can finally give them some opportunities right in their community by removing some of the barriers,” he said.
Gerard Place received a $435,000 grant last year from Empire State Development to support the project.
Partnerships are key to the redevelopment. That’s why Zapfel reached out to Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, M&T Bank and EduKids, which will open a $2 million Children’s Academy pre-school program on the first floor.
Transforming the building is a $6 million project, of which $4 million has already been raised.
Zapfel is also talking to such groups as CEPA Gallery, the University at Buffalo and area sports leagues about having a presence in the facility.
It’s a big jump for Gerard Place, which operates on an $850,000 budget.
Since 2000, the nonprofit has offered housing and supportive programs for homeless, single-parent families in 14 apartments next door in another building on the campus.
The organization was founded by religious women from 12 area parishes, many of whom remain involved in the programs.
In addition to the board of directors, there are 50 volunteers on an advisory committee.
The ultimate goal of all the programs is to help people get on their feet, but with a focus on independence.
“We stress employment and self-sufficiency, but we cannot be oblivious to basic human needs and food insecurity,” Zapfel said. “We do as much as we can, but we have to provide opportunities for people to get themselves out of poverty.”
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