Non profit community center struggles to serve

Augusta-Richmond County is facing a $9 million deficit. Elizabeth Jones, the executive director of Shiloh Comprehensive Community Center, is facing a leaking roof, a vandalized air conditioner and a gang that has chased kids away from her center's basketball court.

Some of the people who come to Shiloh, located in one of Augusta's poorest neighborhoods, are facing reduced incomes, not enough to make the mortgage payment and buy groceries at the same time.

Shiloh, a senior center, food pantry and youth tutoring facility, is asking the Augusta commission for $55,000 for roof repairs and operational support to get it through this year. City Administrator Fred Russell said he's not optimistic about finding a way to do that.

"It would mean deciding (from already earmarked funds) who doesn't get their money," he said. "There's no new money, so giving some to them would mean somebody else doesn't get money."

Most of Augusta's community centers are city-owned and paid for under the Recreation and Parks Department. Shiloh and the New Bethlehem Community Center are private nonprofits that depend on donations, grants and limited city appropriations to operate. The recession has reduced Shiloh's private donations by 30 percent, Jones said.

"The people who support Shiloh have always been very generous. Unfortunately, our donors have also been hit with this recession," she said.

Shiloh's board will have to decide what services to cut if the money can't be found. Jones expects the food pantry will be one of them.

"By the end of February, at the rate we're going, we're not going to be able to give out food to people who are not on our brown bag list," she said. "We'll still have the pantry. We just won't have the food to give out like we've been doing."

It's not the first time the center has struggled against odds.

Shiloh first opened as an orphanage for black children in 1908. It provided housing, care and education at a time when government assistance was not available. When the orphanage closed from lack of money in the 1970s, a retired teacher named Ruth B. Crawford was determined to reopen it as a community center. She and a committee of people did so, building the center's programs on volunteerism.

Shiloh was the hub of neighborhood activity for the next 30 years, with after-school tutoring, Girl Scouts of America, summer recreation and field trips for children and sewing groups, cooking groups, card games and community dinners for adults and families.

The center remains relevant today, Shiloh board member Faye Hargrove said.

"It's clearly in a depressed area," she said. "A community center is especially important in a place like this, to give a sense of identity and bring programs right to the backyards of people living there."

Shiloh sits between two Section 8 housing projects, Cherry Tree Crossing to the north and Dogwood Terrace to the south. Crawford, now in her 90s, said with proper funding Shiloh could meet neighborhood challenges.

"It is the only thing left in the black community that was started and founded by blacks; all the others are gone," she said. "We need it. If they closed that center, you might as well say: 'Gangs, take over.' "

Shiloh is a small community center with a very personal feel. Last year, its food pantry served more than 12,000 people in the Augusta area. About 15 children come for after-school help, and 55 seniors attend health and recreation programs and eat a hot lunch there.

It's apparent that at Shiloh, it's not just a group of seniors who gathers, but a group of friends. There are about a dozen men who meet to play pinochle, something they've done for three decades.

Who's the best? It depends on you ask, but laughter always accompanies the answer.

Anna Mae Green, now in her 80s, has come to Shiloh for 31 years, both as a volunteer and a participant. These days she plays whist with friends.

"I thought I'd come to learn how these old folks act, so when I get old I'll know what to do," she said.