An old Kansas City school is getting a new life as a community center and the overhaul is kicking off a bigger project involving volunteers from several different places.
Don't try shaking hands with 87-year-old Mary Kelly. She's a go-all-out type who's full of energy and willing to give anyone a hug. And she got dirty with all the other volunteers dusting and sawing and painting the old Graceland Elementary School - that had sat empty for eight years - on the road to making it the Mary L Kelly Community Center.
"It's not only going to provide activities. It's going to provide education. And we are especially involved with the seniors because they get locked at home and we want them to come out and enjoy the center," said Kelly, the center's namesake.
Kelly is known throughout the community. She has served as a life-long neighborhood activist.
With one room already done, volunteers with Black and Veatch, Christmas in October, The Upper Room and local neighborhood associations got to work renovating three more.
"Already today they offer GED classes and testing in a computer lab down the hallway. There's going to be a full working kitchen where they make lunches for the students. They're knocking out walls to make a health club for downstairs. There's going to be a cafe, a gymnasium," said Steve Alley with Christmas in October.
The final product is due to be done in September.
The community center is considered the cornerstone of a larger initiative to revitalize the economically depressed Blue Hills and Town Fork Creek neighborhoods, which includes efforts to improve schools, housing and increase employment opportunities.
In October, the team turns to fifty homes surrounding the building at 51st Street and Chestnut Avenue, putting a different spin on the early Christmas as the non-profit celebrates its 30 year.
"Typically we are pretty scattered and this year we decided to try to tighten it up, to see if we could make a bigger difference in a smaller space and perhaps plant that seed that we can grow from and really change these neighborhoods," said John Summers with Christmas in October.
The huge undertaking is not something that's getting federal, state or local funding. It's all being done through donations from different charitable groups like Sprint and Hallmark and the neighborhood. And with 40,000-square-feet to go before they open in September, the groups have got their work cut out for them.
For the center's namesake, who's been doing good for the area for decades, working together is hardly work at all - it's a reward of its own, giving her plenty of folks to hug.
The center was purchased and will be run by The Upper Room, a neighborhood-based non-profit that has been providing supplemental education programs in the urban core since 1999.
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