By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
Zion Wells picks up a wooden block with an animal painted on it, and places it on a puzzle board in its correct spot.
“What’s this animal?” asks Lashay Nixon.
“Cheetah,” Zion says.
“What does the cheetah do?” Nixon continues.
“Runs fast,” Zion responds.
Zion picks up another block and Nixon runs through the same questions.
“Eats grass,” Zion says, when asked what a zebra does.
Zion is one of a group of children ages 3 through 5 who participate in the afternoon preschool program at the Thomas William Community Center in Farrell, a Mercer County Housing Authority property.
While the preschool program has existed since the fall of 2011, it moved downstairs to its newly remodeled home at the center this week, as part of National AmeriCorps Awareness Week.
“We’re overwhelmed right now,” Mila Hiles, coordinator of AmeriCorps programs, said of the space. “We’re excited. There’s so much room. We can do a lot of things.”
The space also is being used for an afterschool program for grades kindergarten through eight.
Chuck Fleet, the authority’s resident initiatives director, said the AmeriCorps workers who staff the center will have free rein on how best to use the space.
“It gives them their own entrance,” he said. “This is kind of their area.”
The remodeling was undertaken by AmeriCorps workers through Keystone SMILES, the Knox-based organization that receives federal AmeriCorps grants and has partnered with the authority on projects for years. Authority employees also took some time to help with the work.
The workers painted and installed cabinets and countertops and kitchen appliances for two classrooms, a craft room, office space and a kitchen, said Libby Hansford, service learning coordinator for Keystone SMILES. They also painted murals, stained glass-style windows and fancy alphabet letters.
An employee of Sherman Williams stopped in to teach the volunteers painting techniques.
Hansford said workers installed “recycled” items when they could and used volunteer labor
“We kind of take our limited resources and put them together,” he said.
The center was one of three projects - the others in Emlenton and Knox - undertaken by Keystone SMILES, all starting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“We came to him and said, ‘Do you have a dream,’ ” said Joyce Fosdick, Keystone Smiles executive director, of Fleet.
Keystone SMILES operates in 14 counties, and volunteers for the Farrell project came from as far as Clarion County.
“Culturally, for our members coming here, it was enriching, coming from a rural area to an urban area,” Hansford said. “For some, it’s a big deal.”
Fleet said the center reminds him of when he was growing up in Farrell.
“There was always a place to go,” he said, referring to the afterschool programs and other initiatives catering to kids, many run by churches and non-profit groups. “Now, there aren’t as many.”
Although the AmeriCorps programs are open to the public, Fleet said he hopes it mainly attracts authority residents from the neighborhood. A computer lab and adult-geared classes in resume writing are offered upstairs at the center.
The programs will accept donations of money, snacks, school supplies and toys appropriate for ages 3 to 5, said Hiles, who can be reached at 814-221-6946 for program information and donations.