A year and a half after a Fieldale building nearly was destroyed by storms, it is back to new life as a children’s center.
The GYM: Grace-filled Youth Ministry at 323 Patrick Ave., an outreach of Fresh Start Ministry next door, will open Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with food, activities and a car show.
That building used to hold a laundry mat and most recently housed a motorcycle repair shop, said Lewis Waller, the pastor of Fresh Start Ministry, who oversaw the renovation project.
This three-story building sits on a lot that slopes down from street level. The top floor is what appears, from street view, to be the main floor, with the front door. The middle floor is underground in front and above ground in back, and there’s a half-basement below that — formerly a full basement. The two full stories are about 1,000 square feet each.
In the summer of 2017, a lower wall and the front part of the floor of the middle story collapsed after heavy storms.
Waller said he saw a good opportunity to buy the building “at a reasonable price,” so he talked with the owner. The owner first talked about selling the church the building at a price Waller thought was too high. Once the owner visited the site and saw the damage, he offered to give the church the building for free.
Henry County GIS records confirm that the Fresh Start Ministries board of trustees was deeded the building in August 2017 at no charge. Lewis Waller had bought the church building next door, the home of Fresh Start Ministry, in 2010 for $150,000, according to GIS records.
Waller, who is from Collinsville, is the chair of the Department of Construction Management of Morgan State University School of Architecture and Planning in Baltimore, where he lives during the week. He also taught construction management at North Carolina A&T University for 12 years. He said his career field gave him a good understanding of what would be involved with the project.
“The building was built prior to the existence of Virginia uniform statewide code,” Henry County building official Cecil Stone said. “It was built with too much backfill against the wall. One of the walls beneath the ground level failed.”
This was a tough job for which to hire contractors, because everyone was afraid to enter the comprised building, Waller said.
The structural engineer he engaged recommended that, to save and reinforce the building, the basement should be reduced from a full basement to half, by filling the front half with dirt to the level of the middle floor.
Before work began, Waller said, Lawrence Penn put up support beams in the open area. Then Penn only would enter the building — through the hole in the wall — with a Bobcat that was covered in a strong protective cage.
Penn removed debris from under the building, and then work to rebuild the wall began. Men built it with concrete blocks, rebar and cement. That included Marshall Miller, who, Waller said, is about 80 years old.
“Nobody else took the job. Everybody else was afraid,” Waller said — but not Millner. Scooter Waller (no relation) and a man he only knows as “Johnny” helped him.
When most of the building was built around the support beams, they removed the support beams and finished it.
Stone described the work: “A local contractor executed the plans according to the engineer’s design, and it was put back with some reinforcement as well as some reinforcement of the preexisting part that hadn’t failed, because everyone felt it was a little questionable,” Stone said. “It went back together very well.”
Said Waller: “Cecil Stone allowed us to do the work. He gave us a lot of guidance and showed me things I didn’t understand, especially putting steel.”
They had to improve the support of the building. Instead of it having a full basement, as it was before, they followed the engineer’s recommendations to scale it down to a half-basement. They put up a wall to divide the basement in two, then filled the cavity of the side closer to the road — the side which was completely below ground — with dirt.
Twenty dump-truck loads of dirt were delivered to the site for that purpose, Waller said. It took 10 men and some of the kids of the church six months of working every weekend hauling dirt from the pile with wheelbarrows and 5-gallon buckets to fill that cavity. At every 8 inches the pile grew, they tamped it down with a compactor.
The fill-dirt inside the walls would help even out the pressure the dirt outside the walls puts on the walls, Waller said.
It also took $15,000 worth of steel “to save the building,” Waller said. He got Chris Lawless of Lawless welding in Fieldale to weld it all in place.
After Lawless finished, Waller was surprised by the answer the welder gave when Waller asked the cost of his work.
“He said, ‘because you’re doing this for the youth, God wanted me to bless you with this,’” Waller said: There was no charge for the welding.
Lawless said he grew up on Carver Road, and "I've seen what they've done with that church to be a better part of the community" and wanted to be part of the improvement efforts.
"I was a troubled teen," he said. "Welding kind of saved my life. The Lord's been good to me, and I was happy to do that" in return.
They also rewired the building, removing the more intense power lines that had been necessary to power the laundry mat.
Once the building was completed, Waller brought in his sister Lisa Gray to decorate it. Front windows and the door are decorated with children’s hand prints in different colors.
The middle story has gray walls with swirly designs and bold black, metal and mirrored accessories and art. Chairs are bold red.
The top floor — the one with the front door that opens at street level — is a game room. There are three pool tables and some video games. Collapsible tables along one long wall can be used as work tables or closed to make room for activities.
Waller said he is hoping to get grants to finance the purchases of 20 computers for children to use in an after-school program.
The cost was financed through a combination of loans and donations, and the church still owes $24,000 on a loan, Waller said.
“We spent $81,000 to bring it back to code,” Waller said of the building. “It was worth every penny. To me it’s not about the money. It’s about the kids.”
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Ribbon-cutting celebration
WHEN: noon-4 p.m., Saturday
WHERE: The GYM: Life Community Center, 323 Patrick Ave., Fieldale
WHAT: Summer camp for kinds
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekdays, Monday through Aug. 2.
WHERE: The GYM: Life Community Center, 323 Patrick Ave., Fieldale
COST: $60 per week, including meals, snacks, arts and crafts
REGISTER/INFORMATION: Call 276-732-9532 or 276-934-6268.