50 years of ‘hope’: Jonnycake Center announces new youth center amidst anniversary

The Jonnycake Center for Hope, a charity and social service organization in Peace Dale, Rhode Island, is planning the construction of a new youth center and is celebrating its 50-year anniversary.

The Jonnycake Center aims to support low-income families in Rhode Island through opportunities, aid and a welcoming environment, Kate Brewster, the center’s chief executive officer, said.

The organization works to provide basic needs of individuals, whether that be housing, heating, food or financial help.

The upcoming Jonnycake Youth Center aims to give low-income students important experiences they normally would not have the opportunity to engage in, youth organizer Deran Serels said.

The initiative to create a youth center started in the fall of 2022 when the Johnnycake thrift store announced it would be closing to be repurposed into a youth center.

“The thrift store had become less of a revenue source for us but it was a building that we had that we knew we could use,” Brewster said.

When the closing of the thrift store was first announced, shoppers were pretty upset, Brewster said.

“Over time I think people have come to appreciate the importance of providing kids in our community with new opportunities,” Brewster said.

Although it is still in development, the youth center efforts have already started, Serels said.

“We started a while ago and even had an internship program last year where we paid the kids to do local jobs,” Serels said.

The center is already doing what they plan to and just need an official place to meet up, Serels said.

Kids have been picked up from their homes when traveling to events, Serels said. When the center opens, this will not be needed because there will be a home base provided, making transport much easier.

The youth center values balance, which is why after-school tutoring sessions are hosted as well as a variety of non-academic activities including woodworking, bowling, bike riding and boxing, Serels said.

“My degree is in psychology and public policy and I played sports in college and sometimes you just need a relief to kind of get your mind off of books,” Serels said. “I feel like after school it’s really cool for them to go out and kind of relieve some of that energy.”

Ultimately, the goal for the youth center is to create impact in the lives of South County students, Serels said.

“I want this to be another place for them to feel like home, another place where they feel like they belong,” Serels said. “The majority of the kids who come saw that their grades have risen, which is great because from last year to this year it’s like night and day.”

Now that the center has a contractor, work on transitioning the thrift store into an official youth center should begin in roughly a week or so, according to Brewster.

The youth center requires major capital improvement costs including pre-development, fire protection, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, equipment, furnishing and seed funding for operations, according to a Jonnycake Youth Center case statement.

Total costs are estimated to be approximately $1 million.

The center as a whole has just reached the 50-year anniversary milestone, which is being celebrated through the hosting of four events, Brewster said.

On Monday the center hosted an open house where current and past board members gathered along with staff to pay tribute to the center’s work over the years. At the event, past and present board members took a tour of the new building while discussing and learning about what the center has planned for the future.

On May 31, the center will be h olding a 50th anniversary gala, Breaking the Waves of Hunger. The event takes place at The Dunes Club located at 137 Boston Neck Road, Narragansett, Rhode Island. Tickets are live on jonnycakecenter.org .

The event will kick off at 5:30 p.m. with a cocktail hour featuring the 2nd to None band. Later there will be a seated dinner with live music from Becky Chace & the Silver Linings.

Over the summer, the center will be represented during Jonnycake night to sponsor the Ocean State Waves, a collegiate summer baseball program, Brewster said. The center plans to disperse hundreds of Ocean State Waves baseball tickets to food pantry visitors in upcoming weeks.

In October, the center will end its 50-year celebration with a volunteer appreciation night at Sons of Liberty.

The four celebratory events commemorate efforts throughout the years, which have made the Jonnycake center what it is today, Brewster said.

“The center transformed from a modest food pantry and thrift store to a robust community organization,” Brewster said. “We are also empowering a new group of community leaders to have a seat at decision-making tables through our Peace Dale.”

The center has broadened its efforts in a number of ways including a new partnership with South County Health and Thundermist Health Center to help individuals with diabetes, and partnership with the University of Rhode Island Feinstein College of Education through a Learn365RI grant presented by Gov. McKee.

“The center’s work is driven by the needs of the community,” Brewster said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arose, the center responded to com munity needs through the acquiring of five multi-unit properties from local nonprofits.

The first renovation phase has been completed with ongoing works towards service-enriched housing to eight local families, Brewster said. The center aims to create up to 19 affordable housing units for local families by 2025.

Over the years, the Jonnycake center has strengthened connections with the Westerly Area Rest Meals Center as well as the new WARM Center homeless shelter, which was recently introduced in Kingston.

“We have several families that are there now that we’re helping to try to find permanent housing for,” Brewster said.

The Jonnycake Center serves an estimated 2,000 Washington County residents every year, Brewster said. This includes those who are struggling with food insecurity, heating, housing displacement and other issues.