by Armon Gilliam
For New Pittsburgh Courier

(Washington, Pa.)—The LeMoyne Center has provided much needed community services to the people of Washington, Pa., since 1956. However, after being shut down for a brief period, they are celebrating the ground breaking for the expansion of the center.

Through a multi-faceted approach to learning, people of all ages are being taught valuable knowledge, learning life lessons and developing professional skills at the LeMoyne Center. Although many who use the services offered at the center are from very trying circumstances, they are learning how to live productive lives.

GROUND BREAKING—From left: Former Steeler Delton Hall, Giant Eagle; Commissioner Larry Maggi; Carmelle Nickens Phillips, YWCA Greater Pittsburgh; Jim DeNova, Benedum Foundation; Joyce Ellis, LeMoyne Center; Commissioner Bracken Burns; Commissioner Diana L. Irey; Armon Gilliam and Darlene Bigler, Community Action Southwest.

The LeMoyne Center is also a place of noteworthy historical significance.

The center is named after the late Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne. LeMoyne, a native of Washington Pa., was a 19th century American philanthropist, doctor and abolitionist who was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. He is also credited with creating the first crematory in the United States, founding the first library in Washington Pa., and co-founding the Washington Female Seminary. Although he was highly successful in many business endeavors, he had a deep passion to empower African-Americans and low-income children of all races. His passion is still very much alive at the center that bears his name.

At the dedication of the LeMoyne Center, the legendary Wesley “Branch” Rickey and Jackie Robinson cut the ribbon to officially open the building and its grounds. Rickey was the innovative owner and man­ager of the Brooklyn Dod­gers who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract in 1947. During his tenure as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rickey drafted a little known prospect from Puerto Rico by the name of Roberto Clemente. Roberto went on to become the first Hispanic superstar in Major League Baseball and one of the most beloved Pirates of all time.

At the inception of the center, the goals were: edu­cating the ommunity, strength­ening family life and making better neighborhoods. Through educational classes such as reading, Head Start, first aid, drill team, cooking, horticulture, the literacy program, dance, kindergarten, knitting, writing, African drum, sign language, arts and crafts, summer homework assignments and etiquette classes, the center has been able to endow their students with a rich knowledge base and provide them with many life empowering skills.

Later on the leadership at the center believed that sports could be used as a way to enrich the lives of the people they served. The leadership at the center recognized that sports build character, get people in good physical condition and afford children the opportunity to learn valuable life lessons. As a result, the center was adapted into more of a recreational facility where a variety of sports were offered. Some of the sports offered are A.A.U. basketball, lacrosse, horseback riding, track, volleyball, football, golf, swimming, tennis and wrestling.

Exposing children to the rigors of sport was a calculated yet entertaining way to better the lives of children. Lessons of discipline, team work, how to focus, skill development, the benefits of hard work, how to execute a game plan, being unselfish, self-control, dedication and how to be teachable, to name a few, are quickly learned in the context and crucible of sports. Once children are equipped with the aforesaid life lessons, they can draw on and use these lessons as perpetual aids that enable them to reach many goals throughout life. For example, as an employee, student, father or business owner etc, using lessons learned while playing sports gives one a better understanding of the elements needed to realizing sustained success. Sports not only teachs children how to be successful at a given sport, it also teach life lessons that bolster a child’s ability to be successful in the game of life.

The center has gone through many changes over its 54 years of existence and dealt with more than its share of adversity. In October of 2004, flames from a suspicious fire destroyed a large section of the rear roof, damaged the locker rooms and charred the kitchen area of the facility. In December of 2004, a water main break damaged the basketball court with other areas of the building suffering significant water damage. As a result, the center was closed for nearly four years and many thought it would never be reopened. After a protrac­ted dispute with the facilities insurance carrier coupled with the center being the target of many senseless acts of vandalism the building sat vacant in disrepair and its prospects looked bleak.

Thanks to the resolve of the board, staff, volunteers, and donors, very daunting obstacles were overcome and the center reopened in October of 2008. Since that point under the leadership of the newly appointed Executive Director Joyce Ellis, the center is once again providing much needed community services to the people of Washington, Pa.

President Obama’s American Recovery and Re-Investment act designated a substantial amount of funds to rebuild various low income communities across the United States. Washington, Pa. and parts of Green County were selected to receive a portion of the federal funds. The Redevelopment Authority of Washington, Pa. received the federal funds and selected the center as a benefactor of some of the funds. With the much needed financial help in place, the center will re-build, add an additional wing to its existing structure and update its grounds. Once the construction is completed, the center will be used to operate the Community Action Southwest Head Start program for low-income kids and the center will continue to offer many educational classes. Ironically, the Head Start program began at the Forrest House which was later rebuilt and named the Le­Moyne Center.

Joyce Ellis reports that Pearl Harris was a school teacher from the south who moved to Washington, Pa., where she became aware of the high failure rate of African-American students in the first grade and throughout elementary school. Harris specifically tailored classes for children between the ages of two to five to the basic academic knowledge base and social skills set needed to fare well in first grade and beyond. Sadly before the inception of Harris’ classes, many African-American students routinely failed first grade and/or were wrongfully placed in special learning classes that were intended for those with learning disabilities. Due to the success of. the Head Start program, the trend was broken. Harris’ program for children became a template that was duplicated in many forms in the United States and eventually made it into a
national program.

In May of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that “Project Head Start” would be a nationwide eight week summer program for kids from low- income communities. The program was run through the Office of Economic Opportunity and it was charged with the task of providing preschool classes, medical care, dental care and mental health services to low-income children.

Congratulations to the center’s board, staff, volunteers and donors who soldiered on in the face of many formidable obstacles so they could continue their long standing tradition of providing community services to the people of Washington. These efforts have made a positive impact on the lives of thousands and made Washington, Pa., a better place.

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