The Gathering Place: 'People come here to be enlightened'

The Gathering Place in Battle Creek may be the area’s first Dreamcubator.

This incubator that encourages its tenants to dream about the possibilities and support each other as they create new realities is housed in an 83,000-square-foot building  at 765 Upton Ave. that once was the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center.

To better reflect the energy and vision radiating from within the facility’s four walls, the name was recently changed from the Community Cultural Center to the Gathering Place.

It got its start when The Burma Center purchased the old Math and Science Center in March 2014 from Battle Creek Public Schools for $100,000. 

"This a community workspace for artists and inventors," says Charles Rose, a retired Kellogg researcher who now volunteers and creates at the Changling Lab, one of several tenants.

The Lab is a group of artists who inspire action to get people to come together to make things out of other things, says Sabine LeDieu, a Marshall artist. Her recent work includes totem poles located throughout Battle Creek made from used tires. Each tire is painted to reflect a different theme or idea.

The Lab has a storeroom that contains box upon box of pieces of fabric, a large roll of material used to make T-shirts, plastic-coated strands of wire, and door hardware. LeDieu and fellow artist and volunteer liaison Michelle Frank frequently venture into the room and have lengthy conversations about what these materials could become.

A shipment of used plastic billboard signs recently was turned into reusable tote bags, tents, placemats, aprons and canvasses, an example of how Gather Place tenants create together. The tents are used for the children’s reading programs and aprons are used in the Lab.

The tote bags were purchased by Sprout Urban Gardens, another Gathering Place tenant, to package up the produce they grow and sell. Sprout also did a workshop for the Changling Lab on how to design a rain barrel. Those barrels will be decorated by lab participants to raise money for future projects.

"We connected Sprout with (people who sew) at the Charitable Union and here to make bags from old billboards," Frank says. 

The Charitable Union is a nonprofit in Battle Creek which provides clothing, housewares, and other necessities at no cost to low-income residents.

Tote bags aren’t the only items being produced at the Gathering Place. Quilts also are being made there by women from the Burmese community.

They are learning their sewing skills through a program offered by the Adventist Community Services (ACS), another Gathering Place tenant.

Shirley Finneman, director of the ACS, says she wanted to be able to give these women the opportunity to learn a skill which would enable them to earn money and stay home with their children.

Finneman points to steel cabinets lining a wall inside her workspace which contain donated sewing machines and fabric. Many of the donated fabric pieces are also housed in the Changling Lab storeroom.

"We started by doing quilts and now we’re doing dresses for little girls," Finneman says. "We're working towards something where they could start their own business."

Martha Thawnghmung, executive director of the Burma Center, says she’s happy to have tenants that are loving and open to seeing more than they saw before, be it race or a disability.

"People come here to be enlightened,” she says.

Finneman says her enlightenment occurred when she discovered that her community, Battle Creek, was home to about 2,000 Burmese residents. Through reading Thawnghmung’s blog she learned about the needs of the Burmese community.

"Our church group wanted to do something more definitive and we walked into the room here and that’s the room we are in now," Finneman says of Adventist Community Services.

While addressing the needs of adults, the Adventist Community Services also is providing “material” support to an Early Childhood Connections program housed in the Gathering Place.

A colleague of Finneman’s developed the prototype for what became a three-foot tall stuffed blue bird that sits in a round nest fashioned from an eclectic mix of patterned fabric. The nest is used to provide children with a safe, non-judgmental space to learn how to read.

Frank says children, especially those with reading challenges and dyslexia, need such a space to practice.

Adventist Community Services volunteers also go into the homes of Burmese residents and provide support such as reading and translation services, health and nutrition support, and skill building. The emphasis is always on providing the tools for success instead of doing it for them.

ACS also works with an organization in Berrien Springs to bring clean and folded donations of clothing to the Burma Center to be distributed.

"Working together we benefit from the Burma Center and they benefit from us," Pau says.

"We value where they’re coming from," Finneman says of the Burmese community. "Many of them are dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression because of the lifestyle changes they go through after relocating here."

As a result of the Adventist Community Services's work, the organization has received grants to fund their efforts. "This has given us the credibility to get grants and be recognized," Finneman says.

In May, a "Raising a Reader" event took place at the Gathering Place. About 70 children, accompanied by family members, heard a storyteller tell cultural folktales.  Free books donated by Battle Creek’s Community Literacy Collaborative were given to the children who also got to do an art project at the Changling Lab.

Most of the children also participate in the Early Childhood Connection program. Tuan Pau, who works as a translator and liaison for Burmese families, says having the Burmese Center at the Gathering Place offers a level of comfort and security to the families he serves and makes them less hesitant about to have their children involved in playgroups there.

The room occupied by Early Childhood Connections includes toys and other play activities, so when childcare is needed this is the "go to" room.

Jeremy Andrews, chief excitement officer with Sprout, says his organization sees possibilities in a diverse community center filled with youth and adults engaging in various activities.

"Specifically, we see our future role in the center as an agent of increased food access, celebrator of local food, and promoter of diverse food enterprise," Andrews says. "We hope to assist in creating jobs from within the space, influence local policy such as zoning, and support new food entrepreneurs from within the various groups and organizations participating.

Thawnghmung says she is always looking for ways to generate revenue to grow the Gathering Place. The building has been rented out for events such as weddings, Quincineras, and a tea. The Mushin Martial Arts Academy, another tenant, brings more people in.

Recently the Gathering Place hosted a community storytelling event where about 260 people enjoyed personal stories about food.

Thawnghmung says one of the building’s biggest users is Kellogg Community College’s Center for Diversity and Innovation which conducts workshops there. Local foundations also have held events there.

“There is a lot more potential for large-scale community events here,” Thawnghmung says.

On Oct. 8-9 a health fair will take place which will provide dental care, medical check-up stations, and foot washing. 

"Burmese people pay special attention to older people," Thawnghmung says. "In America, the body part that gets the least attention, especially with older people, is their feet. One of the things we should do is honor our elders and take care of their feet.”

LeDieu says the energy being produced at the Gathering Place sometimes can’t be put into words.

"The energy is amazing," she says. "All of the positive energy and inclusiveness is very important to us as artists and community members."

Jane C. 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. 

Photos two through eight by Jane Parikh