It's a quarter 'til 7 on Valentine's night, and five teenage girls from Binghamton are sitting in a circle talking about school, their hair, and other typical adolescent topics. It might seem like an ordinary scene if it weren't for what was in their hands.
Knitting needles and hot-pink and baby-blue yarns merge to form the beginnings of scarves or hats as the girls chatter on. It's not exactly the stereotypical image of Binghamton, a neighborhood often associated with gang crime, poverty, and blight.
But Onie Johns is trying to change all that. Since the Caritas Village, a community center/arts incubator in the old Masonic Temple on Harvard Avenue, opened up in December, Johns has been offering a free place for Binghamton residents to experience the arts.
"I've always thought that what the children in this neighborhood are lacking the most is creativity," says Johns, who lives just three blocks from the center. "This is an impoverished area, and the parents are in survival mode. That's what the kids get used to. If we can make creativity the norm, they'll do much better in school and in life."
Besides the Wednesday knitting class, the Village offers a free workshop nearly every day of the week. Artist Frank D. Robinson, known for his ability to collage anything from house keys to costume jewelry, teaches Thursday-night art classes. Former Wiggles cast member and Graffiti Playground founder DeWayne Hambrick teaches hip-hop dance on Saturdays.
Students learn photography from former University of Memphis art teacher Glenn Booth on Tuesdays. Rebekah Jordan, best known for her work on the successful Living Wage Campaign, teaches the knitting class.
Though most of the students are neighborhood teens, classes are open to anyone of any age. The knitting class is about half Binghamton teens, half older adults from other parts of the city.
"There's one little 58-year-old lady who dances [with Hambrick's class]," says Johns. "She's also one of the Grizzlies Grannies."
The mix of young and old, white and black, rich and poor fits right in with the Village's mission.
"We want to break down the walls of hostility between the races and build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those who have been made poor," says Johns.
The center doubles as a coffee shop, serving plate lunches daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Johns' son-in-law Erik Waldkirch serves as volunteer chef, and he claims to make a mean veggie burger.
Though the center serves meat entrées daily, there's always a vegetarian option on the menu. Like the classes, the lunch crowd varies from neighborhood residents to business people looking for an inexpensive, quiet place to spend their lunch hour. The coffee shop remains open until 8 p.m., and regulars stop by all evening.
"It's really neat to have everyone sitting in here together," says Johns. "This neighborhood is so diverse and rich with relationships. There are Caucasians, African Americans, Africans, Latinos, and Afghanis all living in the area."
Johns should know. She sold her home in Germantown and moved to Binghamton about six years ago after she felt a calling to do Christian work in the inner city. As a member of the Caritas Community, a 501(c)(3) ministry dedicated to building relationships in impoverished areas, Johns opened her Binghamton home as a "hospitality house" long before opening the Village.
She served community meals and held Bible study groups there. She's even offered her extra bedroom to people in need of a place to stay. The Caritas Community also owns four houses in the area and rents them out as affordable housing.
"Affordable to us means zero to whatever people can pay," says Johns. "We have some people who can't pay rent. One guy cleans up [the Village] at night. He had a job, but now he doesn't."
Not only do they offer housing, Caritas Community members help their tenants through personal problems.
"We don't just rent the house," says Johns. "We've been with them to Juvenile Court, to regular court. We walk with the people, whatever they're going through."
Ever since Johns began working with the Caritas group, she'd wanted to open a community arts center. When the Masonic Temple become available, she raised $38,000 in donations, bought the property, and went through the arduous process of having the building re-zoned for commercial use.
Though the Village has only been open for two months (and classes have only been under way since January), Johns already has regulars at art classes and the coffee shop. She hopes to draw more people in with the addition of theater and music classes by this summer.
"I want to have something going on all the time to keep the children off the street corner," says Johns. "Some of the kids in the neighborhood who have been the most troubled will just come in for a while, sit quietly, and play [board] games. That's what we're all about."
The Caritas Village, 2509 Harvard, 327-5246