The Spokane River runs beautifully just a few steps behind the Peaceful Valley Community Center on a recent afternoon. A hazy spring sun warms the playground and a few dog walkers enjoy the trails on the wooded slope up toward Main Avenue. Down the sidewalk comes a group of after-school-tired kids, talking and laughing, headed toward the little community center on Cedar Street.
“We meet them at the school bus,” said Gwen Rushing, youth director at Peaceful Valley Community Center, which is operated by the Spokane Parks Department. “We usually let them run and play a bit, we have snacks and we do homework. We also have groups like the Boy Scouts come visit.”
The small, free after-school program is especially valuable to Peaceful Valley families because the center’s after-school activities are fairly close to home.
“We have about 20 registered kids and between 13 and 15 come on a daily basis,” said Rushing, sitting in the tiny office she shares with center director Mark Reilly. “In the summer we have about 50 registered kids here every day.”
Rushing, who’s a certified teacher and holds another job as a substitute teacher, began as youth director about a year ago, and now she’s hoping to be able to expand the children’s programs – and the center itself.
“I would love to see a day care here, and a preschool,” said Rushing. “And it would be great if we could expand the community center itself.”
Some expsansion plans are in the works that would add 1,500 square feet to the south end of the building – the cost of that expansion is around $500,000.
“We are working with the city on writing grants and figuring things out,” said Rushing. “This neighborhood really needs a preschool program. I see little ones who come from chaotic homes and simply don’t have the skills” to start school.
As the children pile in and sit down for a cooking class, it’s obvious that space is at a premium. There are practical concerns, too, Rushing explained.
“In the summer, when we have the food bank here on Friday, we have to make sure the kids are somewhere else,” said Rushing. “For safety reasons, we can’t have a whole bunch of people come in here we don’t know.”
On this particular Friday, the children were learning how to make healthy smoothies and a main dish of hamburger stroganoff. Staff from Washington State University’s Food $ense program helped them brown hamburger and chop fruits.
Ninety percent of the children are from single-parent, working families, Rushing said.
“Since the parent works, no one is there when the kids come home,” she said. “I’m often the first person they see after school so I’m the one they tell about their day. We don’t want this to be just another institution, we want it to be nurturing.”
The summer program charges a nominal fee but the after-school program is free, and Rushing said she turns children away on a regular basis.
“We have 22 registered and that’s my maximum in terms of staff,” she said.
Come summer, when as many as 50 children come to the center for summer camp every day, Rushing has another pressing concern: transportation.
“We have an old van, but it doesn’t have the right seatbelts in it,” she said. “Without a safe van it’s really hard for us to go anywhere.”
Rushing is cautiously optimistic that she’ll be able to achieve some of her many goals for the Peaceful Valley Community Center.
In the meantime, she’s dedicated to what’s clearly her first love: the kids.
“We are starting with the children,” said Rushing. “We are hoping to get the community back into the community center by having visitors here from groups like 4-H and Scouts. We look at children in a whole person kind of way.”