Alabama-born Mary DeBardeleben founded the center in 1912 after being appointed by the Woman’s Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The denomination also operated nearby Paine College.
In its early years, the center served as a meeting place for Sunday school, a black Boy Scout troop and athletics. The center also ran a summer camp in Burke County for as many as 300 youths.
Because of shifting demographics in the Bethlehem neighborhood near the center, programs currently focus on senior citizens. About 200 unique visitors attend programs each month, including 22 registered youths, said Executive Director Millicent West.
“The center had a lot of glory days and then a lot of days that weren’t so good,” West said. “There was a point when the center was completely closed but (the community) felt it was too important to let it go.”
After its first year operating from an abandoned saloon, the Bethlehem Center moved to a few other places before a grand, wood-framed building and gymnasium on Conklin Avenue opened in 1930. The center expanded programming with its new facility where it continues to operate today.
The facility’s upstairs level includes several children’s classrooms, a library and computer area. On the main floor, a commercially equipped kitchen and dining room are across the hall from a GED classroom.
The property also features playground equipment and a separate multipurpose activity building with space for clothing and food pantries.
Celebrations for the 100th anniversary will focus on fundraising and promoting awareness of the center, West said.
As the center moves forward, West would like to restore ties with the Methodist Church. Private donations mostly fund the center, and securing adequate money continually challenges the administration.