COLUMBIA — Erica Leach values things that most people miss. She loves the subtle progress of preschoolers becoming students. She rescues reusable objects from recycling bins. And when she came upon an empty church in an overlooked part of town, she saw a home for her vision — a low-cost art center that could serve a community.
Inside a room with paint cans on the floor and a ladder against a wall, Leach’s voice carries over the whirring of box fans.
You can find the Wacky Center online at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Columbia-MO/the-wacky-center/107290602622679
“When kids come in, I want them to see ‘The WACKY Center,’” she said, moving her hand across the back wall.
“WACKY” stands for “Walk In Activity Center 4 Kids ... Yippee!,” and if its smiley face logo and polka dot walls indicate its atmosphere, then the title is well-deserved.
"I am so excited,” she said, and danced a little bit.
The excitement helps sustain her through long workdays when she teaches pre-kindergarten at Walnut Street Day School from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., then works to renovate the building into the evening.
Her husband, Chris, often works there throughout the day, and they bring their two sons, Chris, age 12, and Devon, age 10.
“I’m showing them that this is what you have to do,” she said. “You have to put in work to get something done. That’s what I keep telling them. Yeah, it’s not fun, you know, but you have to think of the bigger picture.”
Leach and her husband bought the building in February using their savings and with help from family and friends, have worked on it almost every day since then.
“After thinking about something for four years, you have to try it,” she said.
Here’s what Leach has been thinking about: a place for people to make crafts — from tie-dye to dream catchers — with “shelves galore” filled with supplies. A place for cooking workshops, small performances and themed parties.
But there’s more at hand than a fun place to craft. It helps answer the local community’s desire for a safe environment — something to help define them.
“We’re a central city neighborhood, we are not immune from central city problems,” said Pat Fowler, one of the center’s most immediate neighbors, who has hoped for a community gathering place at the corner of Sixth Street and Hickman Avenue since she moved into her house.
“To us, it’s probably the best thing that could happen on the south end of North Sixth Street because of the energy that children will bring doing creative activities,” Fowler said. “So the fact she’s going to have this center for children, the fact she has kids in her family, and they periodically walk the neighborhood and pick up trash, they are exactly the neighbors I’d like to have.”
Keeping neighbors’ needs in mind, Leach doesn’t want to make students register at the center because it might disenfranchise people without a lot of money or access to transportation.
“I’m not in it for the money,” she said. “I want to have a connection with all the neighborhood kids. I want something where they can come back year after year and I can watch them grow.”
Fowler admires the work the couple put into their vision, and she looks forward to what might result from it.
“I want our street to be safe for children, and as a neighbor, that’s part of what my goal is for North Sixth Street and Seventh Street,” she said. “Having a child-level center goes a long way to make this safe for children.”
She and other neighbors have talked about celebrating the opening with a block party.
Hanging out with her friends on June 17, Leach watched children playing outside the building and eating ice cream.
“See? This is what I want,” Leach said.
Her close friend Emerance King said Leach is highly devoted to children, but she needed a little push at first to get started.
“So many people have fear. This is her dream,” King said. “I said, ‘Why don’t you just do your own day care?'”
Although the center won’t be a day care, Leach hopes community members will develop a relationship with her. Watching a speech therapist help her son inspired her to work with children. She began working with Leadership through Education and Advocacy for the Deaf, and she was an aide with Columbia Public Schools before starting work at Walnut Street Day School.
The school’s assistant director, Kristina Anderson, says Leach is a great teacher with creative ideas. On Presidents Day, her students make stovepipe hats and memorize the Gettysburg Address. Leach repeats the phrase, “why limit?” in reference to everything — from crafts to learning to count.
“Kids are so prepared for kindergarten when they get there,” said Anderson, whose son was enrolled in Leach’s class.
A co-teacher told her that she will miss bonding with families and watching children grow, but everyone in the school knows how much she looks forward to her new project.
“She kept saying, ‘I’m not getting my hopes up,’ but when everything went through, she was really excited,” Anderson said.
Leach often pitched ideas for crafts, decorations and parties to aides Kayla Zwonitzer and Nicole Chow. They call her "a positive spark."
“She’s come across lots of obstacles, but has never given up,” Chow said. “We hardly ever hear anything negative.”
Instead of playing video games or watching television, children at the center will use their imagination to reuse things in new ways, Chow said.
“She’s always asking for applesauce containers, toilet paper rolls, packaging boxes,” Anderson said.
Reusing items will help her business and teach the children a lesson.
“You can make stuff out of a tin can, you can make stuff out of paper towel rolls,” Leach said. “Kids don’t need to go spend a lot of money to just have fun.”
People get worried for her, Leach said, because the economy isn’t ideal for a new business, but she feels confident that by using recycled goods, the business won’t cost much to run.
The community, seeing their own space recycled from what was first a bar and then a church into a space for children, are curious and supportive.
Two men were walking on Sixth Street on a June afternoon and stopped near the building’s back door. One motioned with his cane and asked, “Didn’t this used to be a church?”
“It used to be,” Leach answered. “We’re turning it into an art center for kids.”
Leach wants to imbue the neighbors with the same optimism she feels about her project.
“As you leave, there’s going to be a sign that says ‘keep smiling,’” Leach said.