Laura Lee board plans plea for financial help

DANVILLE — For more than 60 years, Laura Lee Fellowship House has served as a beacon of education in the local community, but now, the board of directors are inviting community members to a meeting next week where they will make a plea for financial help.

Alice Payne, executive director of Laura Lee, said the purpose of the meeting is to let the community know the importance of Laura Lee Fellowship and that the nonprofit community center at 212 E. Williams St. in Danville needs funding.

Payne said Laura Lee is in a critical financial situation. Fundraising has been difficult in recent years, Payne said, as it has been for United Way, which is the institution's main source of funding. Payne said Laura Lee's revenues have decreased about $10,000 a year for the last 10 years. The board of directors has been working on some long-range ideas for sustainability, Payne said, but wants to get a feel for what the community wants to do first. Laura Lee's main fundraiser is its annual banquet, which is coming up in late April.

So, the board has made the decision to hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at the fellowship house not only to demonstrate the value of Laura Lee but also to make a plea for assistance.

Payne said the board has targeted various individuals in the community, who have been invited to talk at the meeting about how Laura Lee made a difference in their lives, particularly as youth. She said there will be eight to 10 speakers, and then agency officials will discuss what needs to be done to keep Laura Lee viable. Payne said they won't be talking about a temporary solution, but something that will sustain the center.

"We are concerned if we will be able to provide the services to the youth, families and senior citizens. We have been there as a beacon of light and want to maintain being that beacon of light and hope for the community," said Payne, who explained that Laura Lee offers programs for senior citizens as well as youth, and makes its facilities available to various community groups and functions."Our students come every afternoon. Nothing has changed, and we make sure we meet the needs of all of our students, but yes, we are at a critical financial situation. I'm confident that the community will step up to the plate and provide assistance."

The fellowship's origins stretch back to the 1920s when Laura Robertson, a social worker of sorts, according to Payne, convinced a judge to entrust her with several kids who were going to be sent to a juvenile home outside the city. Her efforts eventually grew into the agency that occupies its present facility, which was built in the 1960s and expanded in 2005. Today, Laura Lee has a board of directors, executive director, administrative assistant, a food specialist, custodial staff and three academic coaches who are retired certified teachers. There are programs for senior citizens as well as youth, and a computer lab and fitness center with a certified trainer that can be accessed with a membership. The facilities, which include a kitchen, can be rented out for various events, Payne said.

But the agency's main mission is the after-school program that serves about 70 kindergarten through eighth-grade students every school day until 5:30 p.m. The program, run by Payne, a retired educator and principal, and three retired certified teachers, is structured but yet incorporates fun into learning opportunities.

Payne said the students arrive directly from their schools and immediately begin their homework followed by various educational activities, then dinner at 4 p.m. and physical activities until they go home at 5:30 p.m.

"It is extremely important that we provide a safe haven for students to come in and focus on education and work on whatever weaknesses they have and build on their strengths," said Payne, who added that at the beginning of the school year, the students are tested to determine what learning areas they need to target.

Maggie Blanden has been working as one of the academic coaches for 12 years. She said the after-school program is the core of Laura Lee Fellowship.

"We pride ourselves in having the best academic coaches, and we do our best to get the best out of the children, and at the same time, boost their self esteem," she said.

The staff works with the school district, accessing the students' progress reports and report cards, keeping a file on each student, and also sending home to parents their weekly progress reports on the kids. She said it's a structured and safe environment.

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