A place for everyone: Banneker Community Center

One by one and two by two, children and parents entered the bright kitchen filled with shiny kitchen appliances at Banneker Community Center.

Some kids had their aprons on. One dad helped his daughter tie her apron as more chairs were brought in to meet the growing number of little chefs signed up for the December Cooking Classroom. 

Shelby Drake addresses a quickly growing group of children and adults at the start of the December Cooking Classroom in the Banneker Community Center. Drake is the health and wellness coordinator for the City of Bloomington Parks and Recreation.

On this cold night, Banneker feels incredibly warm as the energy of happy kids and parents bonding over cooking fills the building from the third-floor Family Resource Center to the large basement gymnasium. Following a difficult COVID pause, an evening such as this proves Banneker is revamped and bouncing back, which is what Banneker’s Program and Facility Coordinator, Kevin Terrell, was hired to do in September of 2022.

“This building in this community has a huge amount of history to it. That’s a big part of who we are and what we always will be,” Terrell said. 

“We do have to live in the present, too, and plan for the future, building as we go with the idea this becomes a huge hub for the community at large.”

In 2019, ROI awarded a Ready Communities grant to the Bloomington Parks Foundation to transform the Banneker Community Center. Grant funds were used for renovations, equipment, furniture, cabinets, workstations, and technology.

The Ready Communities competitive grant program empowered Indiana Uplands communities to strategically plan for, develop, and implement projects and programs that build quality of place, grow regional capacity for workforce development and attraction, and improve the attributes and amenities that make the region a desirable place to live, work, and play.

Banneker was selected because of the community it serves and the cultural role it has in Bloomington, explained Tina Peterson, Regional Opportunity Initiatives President and CEO.

“Banneker’s historical importance in Bloomington is significant, but the center needed investment to breathe new life into it. With this incredible transformation, it has the functional assets for today’s generation of users. Its role as a Bloomington cultural center continues to grow and evolve. Today, it’s a thriving space for Monroe County residents of all ages.”

Creating multi-purpose spaces within Banneker was accomplished with grant funds for new preschool toys and furniture in the Family Resource Center, along with new bookshelves in the Evans-Porter Memorial Library and a new projector and speaker in the gymnasium, according to the August 2021 grant report. Ready Communities grant funding was also used to buy new seating and mobile tables in the Teen Room. 

Renovating the Center’s kitchen was one of the largest enhancements funded by the Ready Communities grant. In addition to ROI’s grant, some funds from a National Recreation and Parks Association grant were used in 2021 to install a three-bay sink, which allowed Banneker to get its commercial kitchen license.

In the spring of 2023, Banneker began hosting cooking classes. Eight of those classes were free “Food as Medicine” classes, a team effort between Banneker, Purdue Extension, and the City of Bloomington. Participants learned recipes from around the world and were given ingredient meal kits to make at home for the whole family.

“Ultimately, we felt Banneker was a place for residents – and new residents – to feel connected,” Peterson said. “With diverse programming for all ages and families, it’s great to see that this grant is producing more activities and more people are using the center.”

Filling a need

As Shelby Drake stepped to the front of the kitchen at the start of the December Cooking Classroom, the first tiny hand went up, asking the question most likely on other little minds: What are we making? 

Drake is the health and wellness coordinator for the City of Bloomington Parks and Recreation. One of her many duties is to run the monthly cooking series at Banneker. 

City of Bloomington Parks and Recreation Health and Wellness Coordinator Shelby Drake shows the December Cooking Classroom the different ingredients they will be using to make individual pizzas.

On the menu for this monthly cooking series class were individual pizzas made out of English muffins with a variety of toppings to choose from, including pineapple, ham, pepperoni, bell peppers, mushroom, and, of course, cheese and tomato sauce.

During a time when many schools no longer offer Home Economics classes where students can learn the basics of cooking and how to make healthy meals, having programming such as the Cooking Classroom is filling an important gap.

“The whole idea is a way to get kids involved in the kitchen, teach them about the educational process of what food does in your body, and how to be safe in the kitchen,” Drake said, adding this kind of class also allows children to get involved with their own meal or snack planning.

Twenty-two kids had signed up for this cooking class with their parents and guardians, including seven Girl Scouts earning snack badges.

“I want parents to learn how to interact with their kids in the kitchen. How do you stay positive? Teach parents how to have boundaries while also allowing kids flexibility to make their own choices,” Drake explained.

As the little chefs began chopping ingredients for their pizza toppings the adults were eager to assist them with their knife skills.

Before chopping ingredients and pizza assemblies began, the little chefs lined up to wash their hands. Surfaces are wiped, ingredients are measured, and soon the cutting begins. It was not long until the small pizzas were done and enjoyed by the hardworking little chefs in this commercial kitchen turned community asset.

In Bloomington, only a few commercial kitchens can be used to educate the community about cooking and healthy eating habits including Banneker and the newest Monroe County Public Library on the city’s southwest side.

The commercial kitchen at Banneker allows nearby residents to access healthy cooking and food education when they may not have the transportation to other teaching kitchens – filling an even bigger community need, Drake added.

Over the summer, Banneker’s new kitchen was used every day of camp as kids learned from a chef Banneker hired to teach them how to make their afternoon snacks. Furthering the impact on the community, Terrell said the new kitchen also allowed Banneker to provide 480 take-home meals to children in Summer Camp they could eat over the weekend. 

Last year, over 10,000 children used Banneker programming, and Terrell said the majority of those children were a part of the Summer Camp and different after-school programming. Nearly 20,000 community members – young and old – used the Banneker Community Center or participated in an activity there last year. 

Room to grow

As the sun begins to set on the cold December day, Bloomington resident Debra Cadwell sits on the floor of the Family Resource Center with her 1-year-old son Briggston. The stop at Banneker was the day’s second outing for Cadwell and her son. Briggston likes to get out and explore, so his mom is always looking for cheap or free activities in town, she said.

“If you’re going every day to multiple places, paying admission and parking adds up. It’s nice to have free spots for his age,” she said. “He’s so little. You would think he wouldn’t mind being at home, but he does.”

One-year-old Briggston plays with the different toys on the third floor Family Resource Center of the Banneker Community Center. Briggston visited the center for the first time with his mom Debra late last year.

Cadwell said she heard about Banneker before but decided to check it out after seeing a post listing their holiday hours on Facebook. The upstairs Family Resource Center is filled with toys to keep little Briggston happy and entertained. “I love the toys. I like how there are sections. Kids get some space. It’s like their own little space,” Cadwell said as she looked around the third-floor play area.

Down in Banneker’s lowest level, you will find a room filled with games alongside tables for air hockey, foosball, and ping pong. This room, the Teen Room, is the home base for Banneker’s teen after-school program, which Terrell is working hard to revitalize in the post-pandemic world. When he first started, six kids were signed up for the free program. At the start of the 2023-2024 school year, 22 teens signed up. 

“We have all sorts of different activities and daily plans for them, such as different trips around town, and we try to make it as lively as possible,” Terrell said, noting trips to the WonderLab, Monroe County Public Library, and the Bloomington Antique Mall. A Nature Club and STEM Club also meet during the after-school program. The teens also get to use the renovated kitchen for different cooking lessons. 

The Teen Room is the home base for Banneker’s teen after-school program. The room is filled with games alongside tables for air hockey, foosball, and ping pong.

The gymnasium is close to the Teen Room, where community members can play basketball and pickleball. The center also hosts Family Rec Nights for local families to spend quality time together while having some fun. The next Family Rec Night will be a Family Gym Night on March 22. 

Ready Communities grant funding also partially funded a 14-passenger bus to provide transportation for program field trips. The ROI bus and a 15-passenger van transported Summer Camp kids to fun activities, including free swim lessons at the IU Outdoor Pool, Memorial Stadium to visit the IU football team, and Assembly Hall to meet the IU girls basketball team.

“The additional bus was a huge benefit to us. We couldn’t have done half of the camp activities without the ROI bus,” Terrell said.

Ready Communities grant funding helped Banneker Community Center purchase this 14-passenger bus to provide transportation for program field trips.

This year, Terrell plans to continue the momentum of 2023 – filled with completed renovations, making community connections, and hosting popular programming. Banneker also hosts preschool programs, including music time, storytime, and “Physical Fridays,” where parents can bring their little ones to the gymnasium to let out some energy and play with all of the toys. 

Looking forward, Terrell said there is room to grow at Banneker, and part of the focus for that growth will be on adult and family-oriented programming to bring more community members in and better serve the area as a whole. New activities for 2024 include a revitalized backyard urban farm program.

Community connection

Banneker first opened its doors in 1915 as a segregated school for Black children, according to the Indiana Historical Bureau

In 1955, the City of Bloomington acquired the building and renamed it the West Side Community Center. The Banneker Community Center was renamed in 1994 to reclaim its historic significance, according to the city’s Walk Through Bloomington’s African American History. 

Though the community center’s name has changed, the building on West 7th Street continues to stand tall as a cultural center in Bloomington where community members can come to learn, meet new people, play sports, and feel connected to their neighbors.

“Families just come in. It is very open and welcoming. Kevin works hard to provide resources for families in need,” Drake said. 

The care Terrell puts into his job, the community, and Banneker can be felt throughout the building as everyone is welcome into Banneker, according to Drake. 

From finding Christmas presents for families in need to helping people find housing, Terrell has stepped up to fill community needs. Last year, 40 families were served Thanksgiving meals made in the kitchen in collaboration with an Indiana University sorority. 

“This place has become known as ‘if you need help, go there,’ and they will try to help you figure it out,” Drake said.

This year, the community will have more opportunities to visit Banneker and feel the energy growing there as Terrell plans to host monthly events with fun planned for the whole family. 

In December, Banneker hosted the Winter Wonderland Celebrations from Around the World, and attendance for that event more than doubled compared to 2022, Terrell said. 

When the popular Summer Camp concludes, the whole neighborhood celebrates with a Block Party featuring a cookout with all food donated, activity tables, and a variety of vendors. But the most popular part of the Block Party was the talent show. 

“I had people I had never seen before get here early. The talent show started at 5:30 p.m., and they were here at 3 p.m. They wanted a good spot and to be here,” Terrell said.

“The kids did a great job putting it on. My staff did an outstanding job of getting the kids coached up and getting their acts together. Kids told jokes. We had some singers and dancers. The community turned out for it.”

The kitchen, gymnasium, Family Resource Center, and the entire community center are also available for rent. Since Terrell started working, Banneker has been rented for baby and wedding showers, political events, birthday and graduation parties, book signings, and even a sneaker art festival. Local sports leagues also use the gymnasium. 

Simply put, the community is taking advantage of what Banneker has to offer. Along with cooking classes, a local neighborhood association meets at the center, and IU Heath‘s Get Onboard Active Living (GOAL) program utilizes the center for meetings along with other groups. The Monroe County branch of the NAACP meets at the center every month and will have its state convention there this year, which Terrell credits to the newly renovated kitchen and third-floor Family Resource Center. 

Looking into 2024, Terrell is optimistic for the future of Banneker and the impact it can continue to make on the community. 

“The momentum is with us,” he said.  “The wind is at our backs. Many people are coming back and are excited that Banneker is growing.”

Follow Banneker’s journey and see all the community activities by visiting their Facebook page and website. Or, as Terrell said, just stop in and say hi.

Get a look inside Banneker by checking out our gallery featuring photos of the center’s kitchen, the December Cooking Classroom, the Family Resource Center (including the library, play area, and meeting space), the gymnasium, Teen Room, and the center’s 14-passenger bus.