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Girls Inc. shifts focus to renovations at 35-year-old center in Schenectady's Hamilton Hill

Girls Inc. shifts focus to renovations at 35-year-old center in Schenectady's Hamilton Hill

Asks community to contribute 'time, talent or treasure' to upgrading 35-year-old city home
Girls Inc. shifts focus to renovations at 35-year-old center in Schenectady's Hamilton Hill
Samiah Goodwin, Zhakiyah Smith and Serenity Diggs attend after school programs at Girls Inc. in Schenectady.
Photographer: Zachary Matson/Gazette Reporter

When new girls show up for after-school programming at the Girls Inc. center on Albany Street in Schenectady, they don’t always return.

“All the time, girls come here for a week and they leave,” said Samiah Goodwin, a fifth-grader at Woodlawn Elementary who has been going to the Girls Inc. center in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood since she was in kindergarten. “I ask why did you leave, and they say it’s not welcoming. It just didn’t feel welcoming.”

Girls Inc., which was established in Schenectady in 1937, almost entirely rebuilt the Albany Street facility in 1984 after a fire destroyed the original building, which was completed in the 1960s. The building is starting to show its age, and leaders of the nonprofit said the facility is in growing need of a new roof and reinforced foundation – along with interior repairs and fresh coats of paint.

“Like any building that’s 35 years old, it’s got that wear and tear,” said Ashley Jeffrey Bouck, executive director of Girls Inc. “It just looks like the building is 35 years old.”

Throughout the facility, paint is peeling, ceiling tiles have stained or crumbled apart, roof leaks have damaged ceilings and floors alike. A dance room at the end of the gym, outfitted with the requisite tall mirrors, has been out of use for some time now; a small section of the wood floor has rotted out from water damage caused by a leaking skylight above.

“The girls deserve it. They deserve to have a beautiful place they should be proud of coming to,” Bouck said during a recent tour of the building.

“We are trying to stay new and relevant with different programming,” Bouck said. “When the space doesn’t convey that, it sends mixed messaging.”

Girls Inc. in January completed a $1.1 million fundraising campaign and renovations to its Albany center on Central Avenue, but with that major fundraising effort still fresh in minds, the organization hopes to pull together a variety of financial and in-kind donations to bolster the Schenectady facility.

“It makes this seem even more obvious that we have work to do here,” Beth Beshaw, an executive at M&T Bank and the immediate past board chair for Girls Inc, said during the Schenectady tour.

Bouck said about 100 girls typically attend after-school programming at the Schenectady center and about 60 girls use the Albany facility.

“For years the Albany girls have always been jealous of the Schenectady girls with this huge space,” Bouck said. “And now the Schenectady girls come over [to Albany] and are like: ‘OK, you have this beautiful, gorgeous space,’ and they deserve that too.”

Time, talent and treasure’

Now the nonprofit devoted to serving and empowering girls across the Capital Region, with the vast majority of girls served coming from families in poverty, is looking to improve its longtime home on Albany Street in Schenectady.

In Albany, the nonprofit had been leasing space in a building occupied by the Northeast Association of the Blind. A large, two-story part of the building had long sat vacant, and Girls Inc. finished construction in tandem with LifePath, an Albany-based senior center that uses the space during the day. The renovated Girls Inc. center in Albany, a smaller space than the Schenectady center, includes a large open space with windows facing Central Avenue, a computer lab and kitchen space, and a series of classrooms and meeting spaces. The new Albany center cuts a stark comparison to the dated Schenectady center.

Unlike in Albany, Bouck and Beshaw said, they don’t plan a formal fundraising campaign for Schenectady. The nonprofit instead plans to ask people and businesses in the community to devote whatever it is they can to improving the facility – from money to replacement doors to time, energy, expertise and sweat.

“People can provide their time, talent or treasure,” Bouck said of the nonprofit’s ask. “It really gives people options get involved.”

The nonprofit has started working with an architect to survey the building’s needs. The biggest priorities are replacing the roof and repairing the foundation, basic structural needs that could come with a heavy price tag. The roof sprung a leak just as the organization started renovation work in Albany. A classroom was out of use for two years because of water damage from a problematic window. A group of girls involved in the program said the furniture is old, insects are common, and toilets and other water sources sometimes flood.

Bouck said none of the facility's needs have risen to the level of a health or safety risk to the girls.

“Obviously, we wouldn’t be opening if it weren’t safe,” Bouck said.

The nonprofit is limited in its ability to get state and federal grants because it only serves girls, so it is even more reliant on community support than other organizations.

Over the summer, Renewal by Andersen, a window company, donated 33 windows to Girls Inc. and installed them during a service day for the company’s employees. Bouck said a similar donation of doors, shelves and other items would go a long way in freshening the building.

“Not everyone can write a check. Some people have materials. For some, it’s easier to donate windows than write a $60,000 check,” Bouck said.

Sleepovers are fun’

Samiah Goodwin, the Woodlawn fifth-grader, Serenity Diggs, a fourth-grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, and Zhakiyah Smith, an eighth-grader at Mont Pleasant Middle School, all said they enjoy Girls Inc. and plan to keep coming. But they also agreed the Schenectady center could use a face lift.

“It’s empowering,” said Samiah. “It’s not all about the boys. It’s empowering because all the girls can do anything boys can.”

They said they enjoy the girls-only clubhouse and the ability to open up and be themselves. The girls said they learn life skills such as cooking, and occasionally make their own slime – Zhakiya said there are different recipes, depending on the slime’s purpose.

The center is a good place for girls looking for something to do or somewhere to go, they said.

“Say you aren’t doing something all summer, you can just come here,” Zhakiyah said.

Sometimes the girls get to stay overnight: girls-only sleepovers.

“Sleepovers are fun. They are girly and stuff,” Diggs said. “Sometimes we can bring nail polish.”

The programs offer a draw, the girls said, but the building can be more welcoming.

“People do want to come here, but from the outside and the litter, it doesn’t look nice,” Samiah said. “I want it to be colorful, happy.”

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