Volunteers bring old school to life
New community center unites Sheridan, Grande Ronde, Willamina
The West Valley Community Campus buzzes with activities. Serving the communities of Willamina, Sheridan and Grand Ronde, it’s home to a variety of regular events for the public, from belly dancing classes to music performances, from dog obedience sessions to art classes. Private groups come for weddings and baby showers, birthday parties and memorial services (always free). Filmmakers have come for background shots; a Portland band shot a music video there.
That’s a big change from just a few years ago. Most of the former Willamina High School was built in 1938, with an addition to the sturdy brick building added in 1956. But when the population of the area began declining at the same time the structure started requiring costly repairs, students moved to a new school. That was in 2003, and the building sat largely empty until 2011, when area businessman and stalwart community supporter Dick Paay purchased it with the idea of creating a center for the region.
It was a vision shared by a host of community volunteers, who immediately went to work rehabilitating the aging structure. “It had been empty for eight years, and in that eight years it had suffered from a lot of disrepair,” says Marian Lucas, who serves as vice chair of the campus’ board of directors. She works at the campus organizing the busy program calendar. “The roof was leaking, and lots of rooms were severely damaged.”
It took months of volunteer work time and donations from the community, in the form of dollars and materials, to get the building open for business. “We had regular, well-attended work days, with 20 to 30 people a couple of times a month,” remembers volunteer Dave Buswell. “It was just really a cool thing, the West Valley Community Campus, a way to unite Sheridan, Grande Ronde and Willamina.”
The first area of the building to be finished was a wing that included the auditorium, two classrooms and a bathroom complex. “As we restore, we expand our available space and expand our activities,” Lucas says. She estimates 30% to 40% of the 42,000-square-foot building is functional right now, including four classrooms, the auditorium, the gym and office space. “Every room in this space has a little dream associated with it,” she says.
Volunteers continue to steadily work their way down the hallway, opening a room for quilting, another one for a children’s art group. The next two classrooms to be completed will be the site of a brand-new community kitchen. The board expects to be able to install furnaces in two rooms this fall, thanks to a small grant for installation of gas lines, and are working on a proposal that will help fund the kitchen.
ONE WORKDAY A MONTH
But most of the support has come through the dedication of the community. “Our mission was decided by the initial board and the community meetings that were held when this all started,” Lucas says. “We want this space to be a place where people can come and expand their horizons culturally through art and other activities. We hope people can use the community kitchen to start businesses. We want people to have classes here and come together to make changes in their life through fitness and exercise.”
The West Valley Community Campus is still a long way from total up-and-running functionality, but volunteers continue to steadily expand the renovated areas. “We’ve slowed down to one workday a month but we are consistently moving forward and making good progress in getting things done,” Buswell says.