Lower Eastside Girls Club members have been hooping it up — and learning about the universe via a planetarium and scores of other fascinating, fun and important things — in their new, state-of-the-art clubhouse.
Photo by the Lower East Side Girls Club
BY HEATHER DUBIN | Hula-hooping on a Friday afternoon at The Lower Eastside Girls Club is not a bad way to end your week. Especially if you are a Girls Club member in the East Village, with access to its brand new $20 million facility, located on E. Eighth St. near Avenue D.
Last Friday, at The Lower Eastside Girls Club Center for Community, 23 girls, ages 11 to 18, were tossing balloons to each other as they twirled a hula hoop round and round in Baker Hall, a mirror-lined, sunny, movement room. It was one of the center’s appropriately dubbed “Fab Fridays,” during which the girls participated in one of five activities offered that day. Maria Valentin, a mom of one of the girls, was giving hula hoop instruction, with lots of laughs and smiles.
That afternoon, two staff employees, Samantha Waite, program manager, and Kate Sease, development associate, led an enthusiastic tour of the first and only Girls Club center in New York City, which has been 17 years in the making.
The Lower Eastside Girls Club was founded in 1996 by women in the neighborhood who wanted a place with services where girls could go, since they were excluded from the local Boys Club of New York.
The entrance to the 30,000-square-foot, green building is on E. Eighth St., and will eventually be a gallery space for the girls’ artwork, along with that of guest artists. The big open space is also home to a free bookstand with donated books, and a juice bar area where the girls can grab a healthy snack. As part of the Girls Club guidelines, the center is officially a “junk-food free zone,” and no outside food or drink is allowed.
Currently, there are 200 neighborhood girls who attend programs at the center during the week and mentoring on Saturdays. More programs will be offered as the center continues to evolve and grow, with an anticipated enrollment of about 1,000 girls by next January.
Above the center there are 78 units of mixed-income housing, which is a separate entity from the Girls Club.
The Baker Hall Health and Wellness Center will host varied physical activities from yoga to fencing to meditation, and is named for Ella Baker, a civil rights leader, Josephine Baker, the entertainer, and Jennifer Baker and her parents, all of whom died from AIDS.
Art is integral to the center. Mosaic tile art even lines the bathrooms in the lobby, commissioned by local artists Cindy Ruskin, CHARAS’s Chino Garcia, Nicolina Johnson and Juan Carlos Pinto. The tile work references subjects the girls know well, such as La Tiendita, the Girls Club retail shop at the Essex Street Market on Delancey St.
Jing Shan, a nurse, teaches meditation to the girls. Earlier, she led a class with two younger girls and one older one.
“Maybe the younger ones were not ready for the session, but it was good to work on breath, and it was fun,” she said.
There is a large commercial kitchen with pizza ovens, where the girls will continue to learn about baking and business through their Sweet Things Baking Company. They will expand their knowledge at the pizza academy with partner Two Boots Pizza. Next to the kitchen is Celebrate Café, where the girls will sell their baked goods to the public.
As one of their entrepreneurial programs, Girls Club members’ moms can take cooking classes with their daughters, and both mothers and daughters can earn handler licenses and food certifications at the We Mean Business culinary education center.
“We also want to have cooking classes for boys, and want to do other programming for boys at the center, too,” Waite added. Class trips for girls and boys to the center’s planetarium have already begun.
There will be more classes for moms at the center, too. Currently, the writer Hettie Jones is teaching a poetry or nonfiction writing class for moms.
Around the corner from the kitchen, Megan Kindsfather, an artist who lives in Brooklyn, was creating a wall-size map of the Lower East Side with small pieces of glass. Waite explained that each red piece of glass represents a location where the Girls Club previously existed in the neighborhood, and there were more than 20 of them.
Upstairs in the second-floor design shop, Mary Adams, a dress designer and owner of The Dress in Manhattan, was busy sewing potholders that the younger girls, ages 8 to 11, assembled earlier. Adams has been a Girls Club volunteer on and off since 1996.
A recent project involves making aprons, which has morphed into crafting matching pot holders for Thanksgiving.
“We are pushing people to buy a pie, and then they get a pot holder,” Waite said. The girls chose the fabrics, colors and appliqué while Adams diligently pulled it all together with a sewing machine.
“This is sort of a mass production,” she joked. “We have to make a million for the pies. I’m sure they’ll be a run on them.”
The pie and pot holder combo will be available at La Tiendita for $30.
“We don’t usually work with the younger girls,” she noted. “We usually start older because they’re too crazy with the sewing items and the needles,” she said of the younger girls. However, she was pleasantly surprised that day, and the girls liked it, too.
Tyra Banks, the supermodel and entrepreneur, founded the TZONE, which started as a summer camp and foundation, unaffiliated with the Girls Club. The TZONE is a leadership development center.
There will be an introductory 10-week program on Saturdays covering financial literacy, along with science, technology, engineering and math, which will also teach girls about careers in these fields.
The members will also do hands-on science activities at the BioBase Science and Environmental Education Center, a lab with microscopes on the third floor.
There will be green roof nearby where girls will run an urban farm, and on a different level there will be plants in a canoe, designed to attract bees and butterflies, and a meditation garden.
Banks will be involved with the center, but her role is still undefined.
The audio lab and sound studio is adjacent to the TZONE, and will be a busy production space that also offers DJ classes. A 1958 Airstream trailer is parked in the room and will be a music recording studio, created by John Storyk, an architect and acoustician, and founding partner of Walters-Storyk Design Group.
There is a center for media and social justice for classes and screening events led by actress Rosario Dawson, who grew up nearby.
There is a space for after-school group workshops in physical computing, basic coding and robotics and 3D scanning.
The Reel Lives program brings in experts in documentary filmmaking, and holds classes in film editing, photography and information technology.
The Alphabet City Art School is on the third floor, with ample studio space for classes.
“You never know what’s going to click with a kid or what interests them. Every program is to help kids find that path,” Waite said.
Dave Pentecost, who worked as a TV editor and producer for 25 years, is the center’s director of technology. He gave an impromptu lecture at the planetarium, which sports a 30-foot digital dome and 64 plush seats. Dave is married to Lyn Pentecost, one of the original founders of the Girls Club and its current executive director.
The planetarium’s astronomical database is currently used around the world, and allows for collaboration with other institutions.
“We want to do a weekly public show at night for the community, to let them know what you can see out there, and the state of the universe,” Dave Pentecost said. He was excited about the possibilities the dome presents for storytelling and inspiration, and also about a scheduled visit by a New York University class that was coming to study space visualization through code.
“Any child has the capability of being inspired and adding to the sum of the universe,” he said. “I have kids ask me questions, and correct me every time.”