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‘From Crisis to Confidence’—Strengthening a Community From an Abandoned School

Fueled by similar projects in cities like Detroit and Chicago, a Springfield organization is striving to create a central neighborhood resource out of an abandoned school building. KSMU’s Theresa Bettmann tells us how it impacts the neighborhood and what’s in store for Saturday’s awareness event.

Old wood floors and concrete damp with moisture run beneath our feet as Amy Blansit, founder of the Drew Lewis Foundation, takes me on a tour of her labor of love.  What was once Fairbanks Elementary, a school building bustling with children, is slowly coming back to life with a new purpose.  This section of the old school is still under renovation.

The Fairbanks was built back in 1906 and began as a four-room school house which grew over the years until it closed in 2007. 

“The reason I was interested in the property was I had bought a house up the block about the same time the school closed down—the same year.  I remodeled that house and lived in it for about six months to a year and I learned a lot about the neighborhood.  I also watched this building and saw windows get broken, boards go up and saw the crime start to change around the space,” Blansit says.

The Fairbanks is located north of Chestnut Expressway in the Grant Beach Neighborhood. 

Blansit shares she continued to watch the building as it changed hands through a few owners, but nothing happened.  As the price continued to drop, she and her husband grew more interested.

“My husband was in real estate and had been in for 18 years.  He wanted to do something different.  He had been diagnosed with cancer and had the possibility of being cancer-free, and so he just started talking about needing something to be passionate about.  I had my eye on this property and he knew I had fallen in love with the history and the architecture of it, and so he said ‘well why don’t we start with that project?’” says Blansit.

The cancer returned with a vengeance, shared Blansit, and she lost her husband not long after purchasing the property.  For a while she was not sure what she wanted to do with this building.  Blansit says it took a year to get the first phase going and she learned a lot during that time.  She created the Drew Lewis Foundation in honor of her husband and began seeking input on the building through neighborhood meetings.

“After a couple of months of having it and the people who showed up and the ideas that began swirl around it—it just really changed from a commercial property to flip to a catalyst to change an entire neighborhood,” says Blansit.

Blansit says Springfield has many resources available for families, but they are often spread out and access is limited.  With the recent closing of some supermarkets, Blansit describes the area as a “food desert.”  While food banks and other resources exist to help families in need, convenient access is a problem. Especially in bad weather, she says, people may be forced to go without. With the help of Ozarks Food Harvest, working with famer’s markets, and keeping a garden, she’ll be able to provide a local ongoing source for food.

As the Fairbanks continues to be revitalized section by section, the second phase of services will include a computer lab, laundromat, commercial kitchen and event space.  This “hub” will also provide a location for agencies like the Health Department to come to families providing easier access to services.

It’s anticipated that these programs will encourage volunteer participation as a way for families to give back, and feel connected and invested in their community.

“There’s one neighbor boy and he comes over and he helps because he feels connected and empowered.  My MSU students bring him into the nest and make him feel completely like a part of the team that is working.  He sees my Jeep and knows I am here, and knows he is welcome, at a place that makes him feel special,” says Blansit.

The Boys and Girls Club Henderson unit is less than one block away.  Blansit says they collaborate and work together to provide opportunities for kids and their families. The art program is the most popular and impactful, yet it has a limited budget and limited space.  Together, the groups began brainstorming how to increase the art budget from $45 a month for 250 children and better serve the kids.

“Well if we’re going to do that, let’s increase the awareness about the neighborhood and the needs of the neighborhood, and let’s do and event with the Boys and Girls Club that provides a day of service,” Blansit says. 

That event is Saturday, with a free wellness event for children and families held at the BGC Henderson unit. It will include health screenings, meals, shoes, clothes, haircuts and hygiene kits.

The evening’s events will be at the Fox Theatre downtown include a fashion show featuring the BGC kids, art, food, live music and a silent auction.  Tickets for the event are $45 and all proceeds benefit the partnership between The Fairbanks and the BGC Henderson Unit to support the Arts Exhibit Program. 

Theresa received her undergraduate degree in sociology at Missouri State University, as well as her Master's degree in Social Work at MSU. Theresa enjoys writing, drawing, reading, music, working with animals, and most of all spending time with her family. She wishes to continue to use her experiences, combined with her pursuit of education, to foster a sense of empowerment and social awareness in the community. Theresa loves working with KSMU and attributes her passion for NPR, and love of learning, to her father.