Updated Tue, Oct 8, 2013 5:23 pm
After 14 years of operating what’s become the Nelsonville Community Center and after countless struggles to keep the doors open due to financial difficulties, Rhonda Bentley is calling it quits. The center at 77 W. Washington St. closes Oct. 31, although the thrift shop Goldie’s Goodies will remain open.
“I, Rhonda, am tired,” Bentley wrote on the center’s Facebook page. “I love each and every one of you, but I am finished. I do not feel sad; I feel happy that we have had the opportunity to meet, and I like to think that maybe we were of some assistance at some point.”
It was passion that kept Bentley working at the center, but lack of sustainable funding and consistent volunteers grew to be too much, she said.
Bentley has been with the center from the beginning, when it first opened in 1999 by Athens County Children Services and called the Nelsonville Family Information Center. When the agency lost its grant funding to continue operating it in 2008, Bentley spent her time and much of her retirement to keep it running as a private nonprofit called the Nelsonville Community Center.
It wasn’t in vain. Despite the financial difficulties in keeping it open, she was filling a need. Even today, close to 50 people will show up for the center’s free lunch on Fridays. Some days attract close to 100, Bentley said.
Attempts were made to keep the center open. When she faced closing the doors in 2011, Volunteer Energy Services and the Baird Brothers Company Foundation stepped forward to save the center by donating a combined $45,000.
Around the same time in 2012, just before the heating bills were about to kick in, Bentley again braced for financial hardships. Volunteer Energy Services sponsored a fundraiser and match campaign. For every dollar donated to the community center, Volunteer Energy planned to match it, dollar for dollar, up to $25,000.
Bentley opened the thrift store last summer and partnered with a local martial arts instructor to offer classes in the back. They were designed to help keep the little community center afloat, but they’ve only brought in enough to pay for the free meals, Bentley said. She also cut out all unnecessary utilities, like the center’s land-line telephone, and she never used the heat unless she had to.
While she said she’s grateful for the volunteers and the donations, she’s not looking for another “miracle.”
“I do not want any money to stop the closing of the center,” she said. “I’ve worn myself out. I just can’t do that anymore. I’ve run out of avenues. I’ve run out of energy.”
In addition to the free Friday lunches, the free market (where anyone could take items for free), the weekly drug and alcohol prevention program for youth and the food nutrition program for families will also end once the center is officially closed. And so will access to the community space where people of all ages came to socialize and watch television.
“I hope that in the future the city can get together and open a community center that has more financial support,” Bentley said. “My hope is that it could grow and become more than what I was able to provide.”