JOHNSTOWN — A years-long effort by the St. John’s Episcopal Church to expand its community programs in the former YMCA building next door are now months away from becoming a reality.
The church bought the former YMCA building at 21 N. Market St. for $80,000 in 2013 and has since rebranded the building as One Church Street.
Rev. Laurie Garramone said the building was purchased with the intent of converting the three-story space into a community resource center where St. John’s growing community food programs could be housed.
The church began a food pantry and weekly Needy Or Alone and Hungry meal program roughly 30 years ago under the former rector, Father Bill Small. The programs that continue to feed the community today have been operated out of the basement of St. John’s located at 1 N. Market St.
“We needed not just more space, but accessible space,” Garramone said.
The church basement can only be accessed by stairs that are difficult to navigate and pose an impediment to seniors and disabled individuals seeking to access the programs.
The programs have always served a critical need in the community that has only increased in the past year, Garramone said. Yet, program administrators know there are even more community members in need who could be served by the non-denominational programs.
“Lots of people don’t know about NOAH or the food pantry,” said Ann Rhodes, co-director of the Twin Cities’ Council of Churches Food Pantry operated out of St. John’s. “These programs are community programs.”
In recent years, the food pantry served around 40 families each week while the NOAH program provided around 120 meals to families each month.
In 2020, the food pantry began serving around 85 families each week while the NOAH program serves around 500 meals each month.
“During 2020, the food pantry gave out enough food to make over 43,000 meals for families,” Garramone said. “One in eight in Fulton County is suffering from food insecurity.”
When the church was forced to close its doors to in-person services due to the pandemic in March 2020, St. John’s and community volunteers ensured the food pantry and weekly meal program remained open.
Although NOAH was traditionally operated as a congregant community meal, Garramone said a to-go option was always offered, which made the shift to takeout only easier to navigate. Beyond feeding those in need, Garramone said the programs create important connections between members of the community from all walks of life.
“Communities at their best help people feel like they belong,” Garramone said. “There is a wonderful feeling of collegiality and belonging.”
The dramatic growth of both programs amidst the conditions created by the pandemic led the church to relocate the programs to One Church Street early. St. John’s will have to find temporary quarters for both when planned renovations get underway in the fall.
The church plans to renovate the building in phases. The work planned for this year will completely overhaul the ground floor level and will incorporate necessary upgrades to the building’s plumbing, the installation of an HVAC system and the installation of an elevator to make the facility fully accessible.
The first floor will be completely renovated and an existing pool that is in a state of disrepair will be covered to create a dining area. A kitchen will be created with space for demonstrations where church members and local agencies can illustrate to both program participants and the community at large how to prepare healthy food that is also tasty.
The kitchen will have storage space to serve the existing food programs and a new food pharmacy the church will roll out with the support of Nathan Littauer Hospital. That program will provide fresh food for free to individuals as prescribed by their healthcare providers to address health conditions like diabetes or high cholesterol.
The renovations planned this year are expected to cost approximately $1.5 million. The church has secured $1.2 million in grants and contributions from organizations and community members.
“What I think is exceptional about this project is we’ve been able to raise this money during the pandemic,” Garramone said. “I find it exceptional at a time when people are buttoning down and holding onto things, that people became their most generous selves.”
The church is making a final fundraising push over the summer in partnership with local businesses that are displaying collection jars to raise awareness about hunger where community members can drop contributions to the project.
“It’s such an exciting project and there is such a great need,” Rhodes said. “We want to let people know we are expanding and let people know we have these resources who need them.”
Reaching the $1.5 million goal is essential given rising construction costs and the reality that there may be surprises lurking in the old building.
“It is a beautiful building we’re going to house these projects in, but it is an older building,” Garramone said. “When you work with an old building you have to work with the constraints … we anticipate a lot of those incidental costs to make sure it is suited to welcoming those kinds of programs.”
Although the church is fully focused on the upcoming renovation project for now, Garramone said eventually St. John’s plans to renovate the second and third floors to create an event space that would be available to the community for performances or activities, along with office spaces for the church and other community agencies.
Garramone was effusive over the support for the food programs and the renovation project from community members and organizations over the years. She is over the moon at the thought of welcoming visitors to the newly renovated space next spring.
“I can’t get over how cool it is, because churches are having difficulty and this is a church that has great faith in big dreams that are becoming a reality,” Garramone said. “I feel such a sense of gratitude.”
For more information about the project or to make a contribution, visit onechurchstreet.org.
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