While not in Columbia County, the little-known Linnton Community Center (LCC) has been serving Columbia County residents, especially commuters to Portland, for years.
Located at 10614 NW St. Helens Road in Linnton, just off Highway 30 next to the Decoy restaurant, many locals drop their children off at the center’s pre-school on their way to work, and a dance teacher from Scappoose conducts classes there.
In recent years, however, the center, which runs almost exclusively on grants and donations, has struggled for community support – likely because many forget it is at their disposal. Now, the LCC is working to change that with the help of local and Columbia Community Mental Health Public Relations and Director of Development, Hope Wirta.
At 6:30 p.m. on June 20, Wirta will lead a paint night at the LCC through her business “The Trouble with Being Me,” in which Wirta will guide participants through the creation of a painting of the St. Johns Bridge. 20 percent of the proceeds raised through the event will go directly to supporting the center.
“What I’ve been running into is that people don’t even know this place is here,” Wirta said. “And then it’s like, ‘how do you guys not know?’ I think people drive right by.”
But those who do drive by are missing out, according to Executive Director Susy Kristin and her husband, Activities Coordinator Timothy Kristin. They run a state certified pre-school and register after-school program, and never turn a citizen away due to financial hardship. They offer scholarships, some paying on a sliding scale, and some families don’t pay anything.
“There are some – we send the bill out, but if they don’t pay, we keep watching the kids,” Timothy said. “Things happen. Illnesses, divorce … you don’t want the kids to suffer.”
The LCC believes that children in the area need positive and engaging activities, a sense of place, community, and a chance to learn practical skills. After-school activities are focused on fun, exercise, positive social interaction, homework and STEM.
Many of the children they serve live at the end of long rural driveways, and since waiting alone in the dark can create a situation where the child is vulnerable, the LCC also opens their doors before school begins. The children call it “The Breakfast Club” – a place for them to wait for the bus and grab a quick meal in the mornings.
The LCC also hosts karate classes, open basketball, the Azteca dancers practice ceremonial dancing there on Thursdays, and Fridays the events rotate to accommodate both families and adults. Sometimes they host family game nights, or a paint night like Wirta’s. On the third Friday of every month, the LCC hosts a “skate night,” with roller skates provided through donations from the Oaks Park Roller Skating Rink. Coincidentally, the LCC gym has the same floor finish as Oaks Park.
On Tuesdays, the LCC hosts an emergency food pantry.
“We don’t ask for anything, no proof of ID, no geographic restrictions. We have a partnership with the Oregon Food Bank, so most of it comes through them. The Scappoose bread store has been donating a lot of their leftovers on Mondays. We get people from all over the county coming to that – Clatskanie, Vernonia, St. Helens – even some from Portland,” Timothy said.
Timothy, who was raised on the hillside across the street from the LCC, began working at the center as a junior counselor in high school, but he also went to pre-school there. “This is the second or third time I’ve worked here, but all three of my daughters grew up coming here,” he said.
Kristin began as a volunteer for the pre-school when her first daughter was a baby. She worked with the pre-school for 11 years before moving to Clackamas for another job. After two years, an LCC board member called Kristin about the Executive Director position.
“She said, ‘you’re the right person because you know this place.’ I told her I’d never been a director and said I will try. She said, ‘yes, you can do it.,’” Kristin said.
The LCC had a rough history prior to their arrival. Originally owned by a local church, around 15 or 20 years ago, the center shut down briefly after the former director embezzled almost $80,000. While it was closed, a high school student who was getting off the bus outside the closed center was struck and killed, prompting the erection of a stoplight and dropping the speed limit to 35 mph.
“Also, what happened at that time is the community center got itself away from the church and became its own entity and then reopened,” Timothy said.
For now, the LCC is working on hiring a camp leader to conduct their 11-week summer camp, with every week focusing on a different theme. They are also renovating a back room to turn into a kitchen where they will teach healthy cooking and cooking on a budget.
There will also be a new “maker’s space” coming to the LCC, with the first project teaching children how to build boats, word working, machine operation and welding.
“We just do the best we can to serve the community as a whole and everybody in the community,” Timothy said.
Wirta, who already uses her local paint nights to support community programs such as the Columbia Pacific Food Bank, wanted to get involved because she’s seen first-hand through her work at Columbia Community Mental Health how important community centers can be.
“It’s a safe place for kids to play. Their social interaction time is when they’re learning to bond with people – when kids learn to share and give and take and stand up for each other – there’s a mini society,” Wirta said. “School time is regulated, and even though there’s an adult here, too, it’s time when they’re not working on school stuff and it’s just their time, and that’s where they learn to be a person in society.”
To register for the “Paint The Bridge at Linnton Community Center” paint night, or to learn more about what the LCC has to offer, call 503-286-4990.