Painter James Tennison turned a former classroom at South Whidbey Community Center into a 1,000-square-foot combination studio, living room, library and place to teach art. Among the first tenant to lease, he calls the space “wonderful” and wonderfully close to his home in Langley. “It’s a two-minute walk away,” he said. (Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group)

Painter James Tennison turned a former classroom at South Whidbey Community Center into a 1,000-square-foot combination studio, living room, library and place to teach art. Among the first tenant to lease, he calls the space “wonderful” and wonderfully close to his home in Langley. “It’s a two-minute walk away,” he said. (Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group)

‘Space for everyone’ created inside Langley’s old school

Open house Friday at South Whidbey Community Center

Help for the homeless, martial arts, a recreational room, work-out rooms, spaces to create, places to play, a wood shop, kitchen and culinary hub, college classes, veterans services, artists — big and small — and a pie maker.

South Whidbey Community Center is now filled to capacity with a diverse collection of organizations, social services, exercise and recreational rooms, programs for school children, working artisans with a few rooms remaining available for meetings, birthdays and other daytime rentals.

The stately two-story brick school building on Camano Avenue was once the one and only school on South Whidbey. It was built in 1935. Old-timers remember “starting at one end and graduating at the other end.”

It’s ready to show off its transformation from a landmark school into a lively “community-centric” campus at an Open House Friday, Aug. 10 from 3 to 8 p.m. All the building’s two dozen occupants will be in their repurposed classrooms, giving the public a rare opportunity to see the fully assembled new village in an old school.

Events scheduled include live entertainment in the courtyard, activities for kids, free drawings for prizes and tours around the school.

“We wanted a space for everyone,” said Kenesha Lewin with Readiness to Learn Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees operations of the community center. “Seeing the veterans strike up a conversation with the kids in the hallway really is wonderful. And it’s a center that is non-stigmatizing.

“People don’t know if you’re walking into the center to see the Whidbey Homeless Coalition or take a Crossfit class.”

Lewin also used her science-teaching skills this summer when she led Science Fun Fridays. “We made lava lamps, elephant toothpaste, ice cream, we did volcanoes. It was great fun.”

The building is still owned by the South Whidbey School District that collects the rent and maintains the facility. Because of its public school ownership status, the center has to be cost neutral so it’s rather modest rent pays for maintenance. Rental rates are 50 cents per square foot for nonprofits and 65 cents per square foot for businesses.

“Utilities and common area maintenance fees and excise tax are paid in addition to rent,” explained Gail LaVassar, executive director of Readiness to Learn. Tenants must also agree to provide community service.

The center has rapidly become the reality that was once just a dream, concept and plan less than one year ago, LaVessar said. A public survey administered by the district in August helped guide its formation.

“It is developing as hoped – quicker and even better than imagined,” she said. “Amazing and talented people have signed leases and are offering community- centric activities. We are very focused on making it a welcoming and inclusive environment that honors diversity and is responsive to our community.”

Some of the programs fill existing gaps in school systems — such as Living Design, a nonprofit foundation that is set to teach cooking, life skills and hands-on wood and basic building skills. It has returned the school’s wood shop and home ec rooms back to learning laboratories.

The center also puts social service organizations in a central location. For example, Opportunity Council, based in Oak Harbor, opened an office in the center along with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and Whidbey Homeless Coalition.

Sorting through piles of colorful, new backpacks and boxes of pencils, pens and notebooks in Room 117 is Mary Michell, family support specialist. Next week, she’ll start distributing free school supplies from the classroom now labeled Family Resource Center.

“We write grants to help support families with school-age children,” she said. Families need to make an appointment before supplies can be distributed under the Back to School program.

Some people now work where their own children once learned.

“Both my kids had classes in this room,” said Wendi Barker, owner of Tiger Martial Arts. She relocated her teaching studio from Freeland to the school this spring, leasing Room 123.

Where there once were rows of school desks, there’s now empty space covered in black mats. A huge chalkboard still lines the front of the room.

“I could see the potential when I first looked at it,” Barker said. “It’s smaller than the studio I had but big enough for what I need. I like the idea of a community center, it’s got great energy. I always wanted to be a part of something like this.

“And we can do class outside.”

Perhaps the most popular building partner is Heidi Hammer. It could have something to do with the unmistakable sign that she’s in and hard at work in the school’s former cafeteria kitchen, now known as Wild Crow Pies.

“Smell that?” asks Lewin, as she approaches. “She’s definitely here.”

Indeed, Hammer is tending to the last of her day’s order of pies filled with Italian plums, blueberries and other fruit. Her pies are sold in Whidbey’s grocery stores.

“I bake about 200 pies a week now, more for holidays and events,” said Hammer, who started the business in her own kitchen 11 years ago. “This is a perfect set up here. I love it.”

Classic black-and-white photos showing each graduating class from the 1930-1950s were once displayed in hallway cases. They are now being sorted and re-arranged for the open house. Blue metal lockers still line the hallways; even wood shop counters where kids dug their initials have been repurposed.

The high school became Langley Middle School when a new high school was opened on Maxwelton Road in 1981. It closed as a middle school in the fall of 2017.

“We’ve had people come here and look at themselves in photos or their parents or grandparents,” Lewin said. “People stop in all the time so we started offering tours on Thursdays.”

South Whidbey Community Center Open House is 3-8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 10, 723 Camano Avenue, Langley. The event includes free activities, entertainment and tours. ADA accessible. www.southwhidbeycommunitycenter.org

Orson Ruggenberg, 5, demonstrates getting to the big slide inside The Backyard Whidbey. The indoor activity and exercise space for children and adults is owned by his parents, Sarah and Zach Ruggenberg. It’s located at the back of the South Whidbey Community Center inside a former school gym. South Island Crossfit, Skagit Valley College, Veteran’s Resource Center, Opportunity Council, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Tiger Martial Arts are also among 25 tenants. (Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group)

Orson Ruggenberg, 5, demonstrates getting to the big slide inside The Backyard Whidbey. The indoor activity and exercise space for children and adults is owned by his parents, Sarah and Zach Ruggenberg. It’s located at the back of the South Whidbey Community Center inside a former school gym. South Island Crossfit, Skagit Valley College, Veteran’s Resource Center, Opportunity Council, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Tiger Martial Arts are also among 25 tenants. (Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group)

South Whidbey Community Center has transformed Langley’s old school into a hub of organizations and activities including social services, learning, creating, playing, cooking and baking. Pressley Moss, 7, left, and Nicholle Sargent, 8, paint rocks as part of Mindfulness Monday, one of many daily programs offered through the summer.

South Whidbey Community Center has transformed Langley’s old school into a hub of organizations and activities including social services, learning, creating, playing, cooking and baking. Pressley Moss, 7, left, and Nicholle Sargent, 8, paint rocks as part of Mindfulness Monday, one of many daily programs offered through the summer.

Cailyn Murray helps build a decoration for the Readiness to Learn Foundation Friday open house. The South Whidbey Community Center retains blue hallway lockers and many other touches from the old school days of the historic building. The public is invited 3 to 8 p.m. Aug. 10 for tours, activities and entertainment.

Cailyn Murray helps build a decoration for the Readiness to Learn Foundation Friday open house. The South Whidbey Community Center retains blue hallway lockers and many other touches from the old school days of the historic building. The public is invited 3 to 8 p.m. Aug. 10 for tours, activities and entertainment.

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