Learning with Lower Lights

By Dedra Cordle

Staff Writer

Messenger photos by Dedra Cordle
The Lower Lights Ministries recently hosted an open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Child Enrichment Center, 2323 Sullivant Ave. According to director Donna Wilson (pictured here), the child care facility will not open until late March but they are accepting enrollment applications for children aged 18 months – 5 years through lowerlights.org. They will begin accepting applications for infants aged 6 weeks and above in the summer. In addition to addressing the educational and recreational needs of the youngest children in the area, the non-profit organization will also offer programs for older children and young adults. On Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 6 p.m., the Community Learning Center at 2300 Sullivant Ave. will open its doors to middle and high school students and offer a safe space to learn, play, and study. On Thursdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., the Lower Lights Community Church at 1066 Bellows Ave. will host its Bright Lights Kids Youth Mentoring program for children aged 6-15. The students will meet with an adult mentor to build relationship skills and promote educational success. Bright Lights Kids is currently enrolling for the mentorship program.
Aubrey Shaffer, the director of Bright Lights Kids, and Hunter Winey, the director of the Community Learning Center, play a game of foosball in the middle and high school youth activities building at 2300 Sullivant Ave. The lower level is dedicated to athletic and recreational space while the upper level is dedicated to art, music, science, and study space.

The Lower Lights Ministries has a new mission on the westside: to enrich the lives of children through educational and recreational programming.

The push to bring more activities and learning opportunities to the area youth came via an assessment of outreach services at the non-profit organization, said CEO Emmalyn Jerome.

“We believed that we could be doing more to provide resources to the most underserved communities,” she said.

To be able to provide those additional resources, Jerome explained that the non-profit had to determine what were the greatest areas of need within a specific community. On the westside, it was determined that the greatest areas of need were services that would benefit the youngest children.

“The whole nation is in a child care crisis right now and it is hitting the underserved communities the hardest,” she said. “It is a challenge to find quality, accessible, and affordable child care and a lot of low income families are having to make a difficult choice: Do they spend their whole paycheck on child care or do they stay home? I believe a lot of folks want to work but child care is so expensive and out of reach for many families on the westside.”

Knowing the importance of early childhood education – “it lays the cognitive and behavioral foundation for the rest of their development and learning,” said Jerome – the leadership with Lower Lights Ministries began to assess how they could improve child care in the region. Their solution would slowly morph into the creation of a variety of educational and recreational programs that would benefit children of all ages.

“We want to be here for these kids when they are in diapers and we want to be here for them when they are getting their diplomas,” stated Jerome.

The Lower Lights Child Enrichment Center

Knowing they had to address the lack of “quality, accessible, and affordable” child care on the Hilltop, the non-profit set out to build a new child care center. In 2022, the Lower Lights Ministries purchased a former grocery store at 2323 Sullivant Ave. and began the renovation process. Director Donna Wilson thought it would never be completed.

“This building was a disaster,” she said. “There was mold on the walls and the ceiling was leaking. It was just not something you could initially picture ever improving.”

With the help of Summit Construction and nearly $1.4 million in grants and donations, the once dilapidated building transformed into a bright and clean facility with indoor play stations, an outdoor playground, and ample room to accommodate nearly 50 infants and small children once the Child Enrichment Center (CEC) is fully operational.

“We are so excited to be able to offer this program to the community,” said Wilson.

According to Jerome, the enrichment center will be opened in phases. In late March, the CEC will be able to accommodate children aged 18 months – 5 years. Later this summer, the CEC should be able to accommodate children aged 6 weeks and above.

Wilson said the CEC is still in the process of obtaining its license through the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to accommodate infants.

“It’s moving but it is taking a bit longer than we hoped,” she said. “We’ll get there – hopefully sooner rather than later.”

The child care facility will be open Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. They will offer three payment options for families: publicly funded through organizations like the ODJFS; sliding scale for those who did not meet federal requirements; and private payment. Wilson said families who use the sliding scale payment option will still be given a reduced rate.

“They could be looking at anywhere between $50 to $100 per week, which is greatly reduced from most child care centers.”

The CEC is currently accepting enrollment applications through www.lowerlights.org. For more information on the amenities, financial assistance, or to request a tour, call 380-223-2305.

The Lower Lights Community Learning Center

The slow process to obtain permits to build the new child care facility left the non-profit leadership with plenty of time on their hands. One of the ways they passed the time was by getting to know the local business owners in the area.

They formed a relationship with the Buckners, who owned the Buckner & Sons Masonry building at 2300 Sullivant Ave. Through conversation, the Buckner family told their new friends that they would be relocating across town and were looking for someone to lease the space.

“It was like God was leading the way for us,” said Jerome, referring to the fact that the future child care center was directly across the street.

Although their primary focus was to bring early childhood education to the Hilltop, the delay in construction caused the non-profit to begin brainstorming measures they could take to enrich the lives of older children, especially those in middle and high school. Their solution was to renovate the masonry building and transform it into an educational and recreational space.

Hunter Winey, the director of the Community Learning Center (CLC), was tasked with making it an appealing, fun and safe space for teens to exercise, hang out, and continue their learning – but in a fun way.

“They basically gave me the keys to a building and told me to do whatever,” he said.

With the help of the ministry and community volunteers, they transformed the upper level into a space for reading, studying, and exploration. There are rooms for art, music, math and sciences. There is also a quiet room to decompress.

The second floor was transformed into a more active space. It has foosball tables, soccer nets, dart boards (with felt tips) and a gaming room. There is even a small space for weight training, mostly at the pull-up bar right now.

“What we really wanted to do with this space was to empower teenagers and allow them to discover who they are, what they are interested in, and expose them to different opportunities and fields they might never have known they were interested in,” Winey said. “That is kind of the heart of this building and the center of this program. We want to be a safe place where teenagers are able to hang out, be kids, but also learn about themselves and grow holistically.”

The CLC opened its doors in November. There has been gradual growth in attendance. Currently, the CLC is open every Tuesday and Thursday from 3-6 p.m. To accommodate the upcoming spring break for Columbus City School students, the building will be open from noon – 2 p.m. for teens to hang out. There will be special themes for each day that are educational and recreational.

“That way they can still be learning but it doesn’t feel so rigidly academic,” said Winey.

For more information or to learn how to become a volunteer adult supervisor at the CLC, visit lowerlights.org or call 614-228-3855.

Bright Lights Kids Youth Mentoring Program

Unlike the enrichment center and the learning center, the Bright Lights Kids Youth Mentoring program is not new to the area.

Created in 2010, the educational and recreational program pairs children aged 6-15 with an adult mentor. Once a week for an entire school calendar year, the youth and mentor meet at the LLM Community Church, 1066 Bellows Ave. for one or two hours to practice building relationship skills, encourage community involvement, and promote educational success.

For the first year in the program together, the youth and adult mentor will stay on-site, working under the supervision of the Brights Lights Kids and the LLM. Gradually, the adult mentor can take the student off-site to locations like a local ice cream shop, the library, the neighborhood park, or places of enrichment such as the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens or the Center of Science and Industry (COSI).

Bright Lights Kids Director Aubrey Shaffer said the ministry strongly believes in this mentorship program.

“Having one positive adult in a child’s life can greatly impact their development,” she said.

The program currently has more mentors than it does young mentees. The program would like to boost those numbers. Jerome said they are looking for students who might be struggling academically or emotionally or just want to do something new.

“We want them to know that someone will be there to walk alongside them.”

The program is hosted every Thursday from 4:30-6:60 at the community church on Bellows Avenue. Bright Lights Kids is currently enrolling students for the 2024-2025 youth mentoring program. For more information, visit www.lowerlights.org, call 614-228-3855, or email Aubrey Shaffer at ashaffer@lowerlights.org



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