Together We’re Better: The origins of the South Whidbey Community Center

This story originally appeared on the Readiness to Learn website as a three part series and is used by permission.  You can read the original story here.

All photography by ML Harris.

A family lays a blanket in a field, opens a basket of snacks and prepares to be entertained by a traveling circus. A new Whidbey resident makes friends when they have their first social outing helping to paint the largest mural on the south end. A young boy plays with a moving art sculpture on the front lawn. The sounds of the marimba fill the air. All of these scenes are the product of the revitalization of the former middle school, now known as the South Whidbey Community Center.


When the middle school campus closed in 2017, Readiness to Learn Executive Director Gail LaVassar - who is also the Director of School and Community Partnerships for the school district - was asked to lead the repurposing of the campus into a Community Center. The school district’s goals for the campus aligned with those of RTL: to have it remain accessible to the community with affordable opportunities for students to engage in extracurricular activities, easier access to  family support programs, and to be sustained through community partnerships. 

In 2018 Readiness To Learn programs moved from a portable unit behind the elementary school to front classrooms and offices at the South Whidbey Community Center. During this same time period other community organizations offering additional social services, education, recreation, and art programming also moved into campus.  By summer of 2018 all spaces were full and the collective of campus partners hosted a grand opening.

With campus partners in place, coordinated efforts launched, providing programming for hundreds of students to experience hands-on learning, community access to social service in a non stigmatizing location, recreation for all, and increased exposure to the arts.  Learning, healing, and communicating through art is a priority at the center. The use of art in different mediums - ranging from the courtyard mural to indoor installations - helps set the stage as we work to create an inclusive and welcoming campus. 

As we head into the fall and a new school year, we celebrate a successful year. Our largest SummerFUN! Program yet took place over two sessions, providing local students cost-free workshops and camps. We hosted community family entertainment like Family Fun Day and the Up Up Up Crane Truck Circus Ensemble, providing outdoor opportunities for connection and community. Health services like the SmileMobile Mobile Dental unit and Bloodworks Northwest Blood Drive were stationed at the Center with full days of appointments for members in the community.

This week, a mother heads up the stairs and into the hallway to the Family Resource Center. RTL Staff and volunteers greet her and show her around the Back To School store as she fills a bag with supplies for her kids. The reader board along Camano Avenue changes from a Back To School reminder to an inspiring quote for a new school year. The constant buzzing of summer youth programs is replaced by the calm of planning for what’s next at the Community Center.

Expanding on Common Ground 

If the new plants at the South Whidbey Community Center could talk, they’d say, “Welcome,” or “Glad to Meet You.”  Actually, even without saying a word, that’s exactly their job: turning the concrete and brick entryway into one that is fun, colorful and engaging.  “Plants and flowers welcome everyone. Botanical beauty increases the overall appeal of being on The Center’s Campus,” explains Readiness To Learn Youth Curator & Placemaker Jesse Levesque, adding that, “gardens spark interest and engagement, provide inviting spaces to come together in, and showcase the richness of the natural world.”

 The gardens are a big part of RTL’s overall effort to reimagine the former middle school as a welcoming place for the entire South Whidbey community. Another valuable and emerging benefit of this overhaul is the opportunity to pair local youth with seasoned professionals in gardening. In response to these opportunities, the Readiness To Learn Youth Curator Gardening & Art Program launched as a part of SummerFUN!, allowing youth the opportunity to learn about the intersections between soil, garden design and art. The creation of the youth program was the end result of a year of quarantine put to creative use on the Community Center campus. With very few people onsite during the last half of 2020, transformation could begin. 

Gardening and creating together give youth opportunities to learn about self-sufficiency, analytical thinking, cooperation, teamwork, and the responsibility and joy that comes with nurturing new life. “After collaborating with Master Gardener Ron Rundus and local kids, I can see clearly how engaging youth in the design of new gardens - working directly in good soil and planting new plants -  gives an interdisciplinary experience that blends art, science and action,” says Ms. Levesque. In addition to the benefits of planting and tending to plants, research shows that youth gardening interest is highly correlated with planning. Inviting youth into decision making helps to strengthen commitment and create competent gardeners. Partnering with youth at all levels of the process promotes creativity that may not occur with a less diverse team. 

Many community members and volunteers came together to prepare the campus for revitalization. Jesse’s Garden & Lawn Service worked to clear the areas to either side of the main entrance in the building facing Camano Avenue, and brought good soil to the area. Volunteers cleaned windows and pulled weeds. Students at the Woodhaven school made improvements to the courtyard. Cary Peterson and the South Whidbey School Farms donated shovels, gardening tools, buckets and fertilizer. Bayview Nursery gave a significant discount on 15 sweet-smelling Rock Rose plants for the youth to plant at The Center as a part of this program. Master Gardeners Mr. Rundus and Ms. Hagerman donated quality soil and fertilizer to the area as well as many hours of their time and energy.  The Center’s Campus is vast, and Readiness To Learn hopes to offer more Youth Curator Gardening + Art Programs in the future.

Ready To Connect and Create

Under the shade of a large Madrone tree on the campus of the South Whidbey Community Center, RTL Youth Curator Program Coordinator, Jesse Levesque, and professional artist Melissa Koch guided youth on a creative journey of artistic exploration in the Youth Mural Program. Over two summers, youth and their creative mentors gathered, created and learned from one another. In the height of a pandemic and uncertain times opportunity was created to work in small groups and be led through discussions and drawing exercises. “I am grateful to be outside while creating something,” and “I am grateful to be with others again,” were popular sentiments during circle-times. The efforts from this program culminated in wonderous large scale paintings on 3’0” x 30’0” wooden panels which are now displayed as public art.

This youth mural program is an example of how RTL has been able to expand servies and programs since relocating and facilitating the development of the center. The additional space and opportunities to work with community partners allows us to grow the youth development aspect of RTL alongside our existing family support service programs.

“The overall vision for the Youth Curator Program is to facilitate art and science opportunities for youth to work together with their elders to re-imagine and revitalize public spaces at the center. “ As a part of this process, Jesse believes it is essential to introduce youth to professional creative mentors who are able to share their talents and engage youth in real world experiences through projects.

Thanks to donated colored pencils, markers, paper, and collage materials, youth were able to express themselves in the form of preliminary sketches and singular art pieces.  Youth learned how to putty and prime their own wooden mural panels, all of which were generously donated by Hanson’s Building Supply Inc.  Everyone worked through how to translate their unique sketches and preparatory work into large-scale paintings.

Comments made by participating youth about their experience ranged from feelings at the start, like: “very nervous,” “horrified,” “unsure,” and “I don’t think that I can draw or paint,” to feelings at the end of the experience, expressed in written evaluations that said things like:  “I feel accomplished,” “I am proud of myself and my work,” “I feel inspired,” “I am happy,” and “I feel amazing.”

Youth art installations can be seen throughout the Center’s campus. Earlier this year, local graduate Ian Maddux installed a tactile interactive art creation both on the grounds and indoors as his Eagle Scout Service Project. In partnership with Langley Creates the largest mural on the south end was created in the center’s courtyard. Local youth joined the muralists for a Community Paint Day, and made their mark. Messages of Hope dreamed up by youth are visible in the front windows facing Camano Avenue. All of us at RTL are grateful to the donors and sponsors who have made these projects possible. We are also grateful to the youth for contributing their talents to the revitalization of the Community Center’s campus. 

The community center is an inclusive space for the South Whidbey community to gather, learn, create and so much more. Two generous donors have made seed gifts totaling $8,000 and challenge you to join them to double the impact in our community - to invest in your community center, click here.