Project Doubles Coal Pit
Two years ago, as members of the Innsbrook Rotary Club sat down to screen proposals for their 20th anniversary project, one proposal kept rising to the top.
While the other plans were slick, polished, and professionally packaged, the one that caught the eye of the Rotarians was painstakingly handwritten.
“You could just see the passion in the handwriting,” recalls the club’s past president, Fred Thompson.
Authored by Dorothy Gallimore, founder and director of the Coal Pit Learning Center, the handwritten pages summed up Gallimore’s dream of reaching out to more low-income families.
Since 1976, more than 900 preschoolers have been educated in Coal Pit’s tiny, century-old building, originally built as a one-room schoolhouse for children of African-American coal miners.
But every year, far too many children were left on the waiting list due to the limited capacity of the aging structure. Even the three-to-five-year-olds lucky enough to attend the free program were limited to two or three mornings a week. The lack of space hampered family visits and gatherings for student performances or graduations; Gallimore’s “office space” consisted of a desk in a tiny, cramped closet.
In search of a cause to celebrate both the club’s anniversary and the Rotary International theme “Making Dreams Real,” committee members voted unanimously to support Gallimore’s dream.
Last month, they joined local and national officials at the Center to celebrate the culmination of the dream and open the doors to an expansion that doubled the school’s size.
At the Sept. 17 grand opening, National PTA President Charles J. Saylors was on hand to help cut the ribbon and praise the project as an example of what can result when county government, business leaders, civic associations, parents and teachers all work together to benefit children.
Noting that his job requires travels not only across the country, but also to Department of Defense affiliates in other lands, Saylors noted, “I’ve seen communities . . . where this air of cooperation does not exist.”
Doubling the capacity of the school will give that many more children the chance to begin their education “on the right foot,” said Saylors. “Thirty years from now, we may be working with an architect or doctor who started his or her education at this very spot.”
Innsbrook Rotarian Steve Bacon, president of the Coal Pit Learning Center Board of Directors, cited a recent Joint Chiefs of Staff study that examined the decline in skills among military recruits and determined that the number-one remedy was positive intervention at the preschool level.
At Coal Pit, he noted, testing shows that 95 percent of students are at or above age and grade level as they prepare to enter elementary school.
That is no small feat, added Bacon, considering the at-risk population that attends the Center. “Hard to believe, in the fashionable west end of Richmond,” said Bacon, “but there is abject poverty . . . within three miles of this school.”
Not only can the school now accept more children for preschool and after-school care, but it also can expand its hours of operation, enabling parents (many of them single) to work full-time.
The expanded facility, which replaced one small classroom with two large ones, also boasts wheelchair accessibility, kitchen and laundry facilities, and an office for Gallimore.
The Rotary club raised $140,000 for the project, and an estimated $110,000 in labor, materials and professional services were donated by businesses, civic and religious organizations and individuals. Thompson’s architectural firm, Architects Dayton and Thompson, provided architectural and design services. St. Michael’s Catholic Church and KBS Construction, both of which are located near the school, were among other local organizations that donated in-kind, helping to keep the project to about a third of what it normally would cost.
Jim Bynum, governor-elect for Rotary District 7600, noted at the grand opening that the Rotary district conference will be held in Short Pump next year, and that the Center will be showcased as a model service project for other clubs.
As the ribbon-cutting ceremony drew to a close and the crowd prepared to enter and view the improvements, Bacon pointed out that fundraising is an ongoing effort and that the Center operates on an annual budget of $90,000. “That’s miniscule by any standard,” added Bacon, “especially when you consider what’s accomplished here.”
For those who have taken part in the project, however, or who continue to contribute to the school’s success, the gratification is immediate.
“You can see the direct benefit of your contribution at any time,” said Bacon. “It’s right here in the middle of your community.
“What a win, win, win situation,” exulted Bacon. “For children, for their entire family, and for our community!”
For details about the Coal Pit School, visit coalpitlearningcenter.com; for details about the expansion project, visit innsbrookrotary.org.
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