Battle Creek

Community Centers in Battle Creek awarded $1.5 million in State funding

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
BATTLE CREEK, MI — Repurposed buildings and churches in Battle Creek are the first point of contact for many residents seeking information, resources, and opportunities to engage with the community.

From the outside, the buildings still look like churches, but on the inside, many may maintain weekly church services but have transformed into community centers that offer a variety of services.

On March 6 the Burma Center, First Congregational Church (FCC), and R.I.S.E. (Reintegration to Support and Empower) Corp. learned that they had been awarded Community Center Grant funds from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. The Burma Center was awarded $1 million, and FCC and R.I.S.E. received $150,000 and $200,000 respectively. Across the state, Michigan's LEO awarded $64 million in Community Center Grant funds.

Tha Par, Executive Director, Burma CenterFor the Burma Center, the grant funding comes amid a Capital Campaign of $3 million, says Tha Par, executive director of the Burma Center. Par says $2.5 from Community Center Grant funds had been requested.

“With this grant, we’ll be at $4 million for our Community Campaign which began in 2021,” Par says.

The Burma Center purchased the former Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center in March 2014 for $100,000 from the Battle Creek Public Schools. Located at 756  Upton Ave., the 83,000-square-foot building was first known as the Community Cultural Center and later as the Gathering Place before becoming the Burma Center.

Par says the Capital Campaign funds will be used to install a new HVAC system, reconstruct the current parking lot, make changes to the roof to accommodate mature trees in an enclosed courtyard, and make ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance updates.

Among ideas being discussed by Burma Center leadership for the use of the Community Center Grant funds are re-doing the gymnasium floor and creating a commercial kitchen as a revenue-generating arm of the organization.
“We could have our own catering service for weddings and birthdays and to service people in our building,” Par says.
On a typical day, the Burma Center sees about 250 children and adults. They come to seek resources for everything from housing and interpretation services to employment and the “how-tos” of registering a child for school.
In addition to servicing some of the more than 3,500 Burmese residents in Calhoun County, Par says they also assist Burmese individuals from cities like Coldwater, Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo.
Having a dedicated space like the Burma Center is among the reasons that Burmese individuals continue to take up residence in Battle Creek, she says.
“There isn’t a Burma Center in every town. Knowing there’s an agency that can help them get settled and relocate. It is very important,” Par says. “We serve people of all ages. This building is truly a community center when you think of community center, you think of the Burma Center.”
Community centers are defined as “public venues where community members gather to socialize, participate in recreational or educational activities, learn, and/or seek counseling or support services, says information on the County Health Rankins & Roadmap website.
“Community centers house a variety of programs and can be open to everyone in a community or only to a particular group, such as seniors, youth, or immigrants. Some community centers emphasize technology access (e.g., the internet and computer access) or recreational programs. Community centers can be run by the government, by local non-profit organizations, or by faith-based groups,” according to the website.

“Community centers anchor thriving communities across Michigan, offering Michiganders places to gather, connect, learn, and access resources,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a press release. “This funding for community centers will help us deliver on our ‘Make it in Michigan’ vision to revitalize cities and towns across Michigan by making them more attractive places to live, work, and invest.”  

LEO received nearly 1,000 applications requesting over $1 billion in funding. The grantees provide a diverse set of services including after-school programming, workforce development, recreational activities, supporting older adults, and more. The three awarded Battle Creek organizations were among 69 nonprofit agencies, 22 local government agencies, and nine schools/universities all across the state receiving grants.

The grants support the governor’s goal of lifting 100,000 families out of working poverty during the next five years and follow the recommendations of the Michigan Poverty Task Force to address the disparities that affect Michiganders’ abilities to afford necessities such as housing, childcare, food, health care, and transportation.
R.I.S.E. Corp. will use its grant funds to support its afterschool and in-school programming, tutoring, and Freedom School, all of which are offered at no cost to area school students. The organization is leasing a building at 235 North Avenue.
“This will help us to operate programs throughout the year,” says Jacqueline Patrick-James, Vice President of R.I.S.E. “Kids rely on adults to pay for what they need. We have never charged for our programs.”
Damon Brown, founder and president of R.I.S.E., poses with a group of the students he and team work with.R.I.S.E. staff work with certified teachers at Verona and Ann J. Kellogg elementary schools and Northwestern Middle School on literacy, mathematics, and enrichment activities with students. The Freedom School operates during the summer.
Rooted in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, the CDF Freedom Schools is a six-week literacy program that enhances children’s motivation to read. CDF Freedom Schools has a rich, research-based, multicultural Integrated Reading Curriculum (IRC) that fosters children’s love of reading.
In addition to working with students, Patrick-James says R.I.S.E. continues to offer its monthly food distribution program and provides assistance to families in need of temporary shelter or food.
The grant funding, she says, “Will help us to move more into workforce development work and start building career pathways and youth development. One of our goals is to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. We do this by starting to work with children from Kindergarten all the way through high school.”
State Rep. Jim Haadsma, (D-Battle Creek) says the local grant recipients are boots-on-the-ground organizations serving those in need, in addition to helping build a stronger, tight-knit community.

“These community centers enhance the intent of Gov. Whitmer to ensure that more than 100,000 Michiganders already living in poverty have access to better food and living conditions, transportation, and childcare opportunities. This community service within neighborhoods really enhances the delivery of services to accomplish that goal.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.