Merlene Davis: Beloved Bluegrass-Aspendale Teen Center a casualty of budget cuts

The Bluegrass-Aspendale Teen Center will fade away when the school year ends next month, following the fate of the public housing community for which it was named.

The center, an after-school and summer program for teens and pre-teens, is one of two programs scheduled to be cut by the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department because of a budget shortfall. The other is the Center for Creative Living, a program attended by elderly Alzheimer's patients during the day.

The teen center was established in 1987 to offer educational support for the young people who lived in and around Bluegrass-Aspendale, a 900-unit government housing project that was razed in phases by 2006.

"We started it as an after-school program for older kids, but they didn't much respond," said Richard Franklin, the program's founder and first director. "So we ended up with a pre-teen program."

Franklin opened the center in the apartment that housed Karen Kryscio's community nursing outreach program sponsored by the health department.

"Harriet Haskin and I would go door-to-door on Tuesdays and Thursdays," Kryscio said. "I was the nurse and she was the social worker."

Having an established link in a community that was leery of outsiders helped the teen center gain a foothold in the area, she said.

At first, the program offered help with homework, occasional movies and snacks, and simply a safe place to be from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Franklin, who had been the first male board member of the Women's Neighborly Organization and who had worked in that nonprofit's preschool, was familiar with the Bluegrass-Aspendale community and its needs. He took pride in introducing people to the area, which had a negative image.

"I think we were very successful at giving the kids a place to come to and to be appreciated," he said. "Volunteers went there because it was the right thing to do, and when they got there, they saw it was like their own neighborhoods. Then they brought their friends."

Black fraternity members became regular volunteers along with people from all walks of life.

I'm not sure when I got involved, but I spent a couple of summers trying to teach a little writing to the students once a week. My daughter, then a high school student, took classmates to the teen center to tutor.

Success meant growth, and Franklin said the program became too much for him to handle administratively.

By 1995, Ann Grundy was hired as director and Franklin took charge of the younger children while Bruce Mundy monitored the older ones. In addition to the education aspects, Grundy introduced a cultural component that featured visits to historic black colleges and universities that for some children became their first trip out of Lexington and Kentucky.

Nutrition and healthy foods were also introduced, Grundy said, making the center's approach more holistic.

The center moved to Greater Liberty Baptist Church on Chestnut Street in 2006 when the projects were torn down.

Still, Bruce Mundy, who joined the staff after finding motivation to do so while attending the Million Man March in 1995, said, it was "almost home."

"We did whatever you do with kids when they come home. For some, it wasn't almost home. It was home."

In trying to find something that would have the students digging in dirt or learning about plants, the students started helping to clear the overgrown African Cemetery No. 2, Mundy said. After cleaning it, they discovered the history that is buried there and wanted it more publicly acknowledged.

"In a lot of ways, it was the actions of those kids that got the cemetery on the national registry," Mundy said. "They were the ones involved in the initial reclaiming of the cemetery."

Although the center's closing is near, the young people who would have attended this summer will have another option, said Mark Johnson, the center's director. The health department will sponsor the center's students at the Extended School Program this summer and during the school year for the next five years. ESP is conducted by Parks and Recreation at area schools, including William Wells Brown Elementary School in the east end.

Lindsay Feazell, a district director of ESP, said the program is very hands-on and will teach life skills, gardening, cooking and have all-day field trips and swimming. So far, 20 of the center's students have signed up, and she has room for students from throughout the city.

The health department will also sponsor students in programs at the North Lexington YMCA on Loudon Avenue, Johnson said

Mundy, saddened by the closing, said the new program won't be the same, but at least the children will have a place to go. It just won't be "almost home."

"By and large, (the center) produced productive members of this community," he said.