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McGuffey Centre receives grants for restoration

Standing outside the entrance of the McGuffey Centre are, from left, are 2nd Ward Councilman, Jimmy Hughes, Kenneth Purfey and Larry Williams.

YOUNGSTOWN– Against the backdrop of a community grappling with gun violence, four Youngstown natives traveled from different corners of the county to converge in an effort to help restore a historic institution, the McGuffey Centre, a cornerstone of community support and development.

Standing before the aged structure, board members Herbert Williams, Larry Williams, Kenneth Purfey and Sam Barganier, all share a common bond forged by the shared memories of the center’s heydays.

The center has a new chance of life being breathed into it, armed with $77,000 in grants and a $262,500 grant from American Rescue Plan funds that were approved by Youngstown City Council to re-open and re-vitalize the McGuffey Centre.

Board members say the injection of funding is expected by July 1, coming at a time of drastic need.

“McGuffey Centre went into demise, almost a death spiral because of the deaths of three key officers, the executive director died, the chief financial officer and chairman of the board died within two or three years,” Purfey said, who is an East Side native that traveled from Dallas to be a part of a Wednesday meeting.

Purfey recalled a long stretch of time where nothing had been happening at the center, partly because he said the building had been shut down during COVID-19. But financial troubles had mounted as well.

Purfey said, “I helped get the 501(c) (3) status back from the IRS. That was a battle that took almost a year.”

With half the staff dead, a loss of funding and the remaining staff laid off, word spread of the potential collapse of the center.

Those like Purfey and other community members answered the call to restore an institution that he says has served the community for 98 years offering financial support to clear thousands of dollars in debts.

The new funds will be used to revitalize the center and restore its various youth, adult and senior programs.

Some of those programs will be a home improvement project that the board says will help develop professional skills in trades like carpentry, plumbing and electricians.

Purfey said a local 30-year general contractor looking to give back to the community offered his services for free to teach the course. In September, the group plans on bringing in young men and women for their first carpentry class. It will take place one day a week for 10 weeks. The next sessions will then transition to plumbing and an electrician course with the hope that by the end participants can secure jobs in the area with their newfound skills.

For those who pass, the board says the participants will be allowed to keep the tools provided to them free of charge.

The center will aim to also revamp the auditorium with a new speaker system, and address several other infrastructure needs around the building.

“This is extremely vital because the city of Youngstown, specifically the East Side, has been in a declining situation for years,” Purfey said. “While the North and West sides are seeing more robust success it’s unfair for the city to favor communities doing better while the East Side suffers from lack of improvement, opportunity and jobs. So we’re aiming to fix that,” Purfey said.

“As a kid, my grandmother allowed me to come here because it was a safe space,” reflects Barganier, a former member of the center’s athletics, who traveled from Maryland to join the board in their mission. Back then he lived down in an area called the Dairy Queen off Sciotta Street.

“I would walk up here to the Sharon line to the center to participate in football, basketball, scouts, arts and crafts, so there were plenty of activities and it was a place to go for us,” he said.

Reminiscing on the historical significance, Herbert Williams, who still lives in the area, talked about what the center meant to the African American community.

“This is where most minorities settled when they came up from the South during the Great Migration then worked in the Steel Mills,” he said. “Out here it was considered a rural country area. There were playgrounds and ballparks on the East, West and South side but the Sharon line had nothing because it was far out.”

Despite being born and raised in Campbell before moving to the South Side, he often found himself in the area for functions, “the black ballpark was out here, Jacobs Road had all the black restaurants and stores, so if you wanted something black you came here,” he said.

Recognizing a communal need, the center’s founder Birdie Welcher, met with a group of men and women in 1937 to address civic and community concerns, primarily revolving around the youth. The McGuffey Heights had been lacking activities for the neighborhood children and given the location, resources made residents travel far distances, often by foot to other parts of town.

The center began taking shape with the help of Judge Henry P. Beckenbaugh of the Juvenile Court and John H. Chase, director of playgrounds, in 1939. Beckenbaugh brought in Attorney Paul Booth to help establish the center which led to Booth and Welcher utilizing a former Presbyterian manse as its location. Welcher served as the center’s president for the next decade and also volunteered as the recreational director.

The center continued to expand over the years in reach and influence as it joined the Community Chest in 1943 and was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1951.

As demand grew, the hub for the community was forced to expand to accommodate as the center then relocated in 1961 to its current residence at 1649 Jacobs Road.

“This place has such a historical meaning,” Larry Williams, chairman and president of the board said. “My dad and my parents were very instrumental in being involved with the center doing its transformation from a little house and building to this structure here.”

To see the center and surrounding community recapture what it once was, Williams said that takes “the community, the leaders of Youngstown, in order to rectify and get this back.”

Knowing what it was like when industry left Youngstown, Larry Williams, 83, said most of the people his age had left the area to prosper and find opportunities for their families elsewhere.

Larry Williams himself currently resides in Tampa, Florida, but for him, this project is about coming back and giving back what he was given through the center.

Looking at the landscape of violence plaguing the community, hope is what Larry Willams and the board are looking to reinstill.

“We have to anoint our kids with basic fundamentals for success,” Larry Williams said. “With this ARP money, we’re able to bring the kinds of programs that’s going to be beneficial and of use to this community.”

Councilman Jimmy Hughes, D-2nd Ward, and Youngstown City School Board member Kenneth Donaldson were among some of the city officials that stopped by to hear the message of the board members. Hughes personally said he had come to the center for several activities but later in life he became a taekwondo teacher having worked with about 300 students over the years.

Hughes said the center is needed “now more than ever,” further outlining the need for community centers in communities facing waves of violence.

“Every day that a center like this is not active and moving in the community and working with youth in the community on every level that’s a guaranteed soul lost,” Hughes said.

Have an interesting story? Contact Chris McBride by email at cmcbride@tribtoday.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribToday.

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