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  • Taylor Dibbert

Left Out in Long Branch

Bruce Baker, CHEER’s Executive Director, recently told me about the closure of the Long Branch Community Recreation Center. I then reached out to Vanesa Pinto, CHEER’s Empowerment and Leadership Coordinator, to learn more. Then I got in touch with Annie Tulkin, a community member who has been outspoken about this underreported issue.

Tulkin is the Founder and Director of Accessible College, as well as an author and public speaker. She is an expert in the area of college preparation and transition for students with physical disabilities and health conditions. Most notably, she's a five-year resident of Long Branch, where she lives with her husband and daughter.

This interview has been edited lightly.

Why is the Long Branch Community Recreation Center currently closed? What does everybody need to know?

During the pandemic, there was concern about homeless people not having access to sanitation and support services. In response, sometime in April 2020 Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) decided to make two community centers into shelters. The Long Branch Community Center became a men's shelter and the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Center in Lyttonsville-Rosemary Hills was turned into a women's shelter. While the county failed to inform and engage our community here in Long Branch, generally, people were understanding of the situation given the pandemic and believed that the shelter would be temporary while the community centers were closed to the public.

In May 2021, the county announced that while other community centers across the county are reopening, Long Branch would remain closed through at least December 2021. Additionally, we have learned that once the shelter leaves the center, it will take several months to repair damage that has been done to the space. For our community this means a loss of space, services, and support.

The community center hosts one of the few indoor basketball courts in Long Branch. It housed an active Senior Center that provided classes, social opportunities, and food to seniors five days a week. There were dance and martial arts classes available to adults and youth, as well as camps and after school programs available at the site.

The community center also offered a safe space for youth and community groups to congregate and host meetings. There was a workout facility and a game room with a pool table and ping pong. Currently, Long Branch does not have other facilities that offer comparable space and services. In response to the service gap that has been created by the loss of the center, social service groups, and community members have come together to work with the county to try and address the needs of our community. However, this will require funding and support from the county and/or private donors. There are lots of great ideas and some existing services that could be expanded if funds and space can be found.

Why was this particular recreation center chosen to house a temporary shelter?

This is a great question. To date, the county has been unable to provide a reason for why this center was chosen. You'd have to ask DHHS and the County Executive.

Could you talk about the people who would ordinarily use this facility? What other options do they have right now?

Many community members use the facility. One of the groups that is currently most impacted are seniors. Prior to the pandemic, they had programming five days a week, including health and fitness, as well as arts and crafts. They were also provided with meals. Currently, the library is offering programming to 20 seniors (80+ were attending prior to the pandemic), but only two days a week instead of five.

Kids who would have attended summer camp at Long Branch don't have that option this year, although the county has offered to bus campers to other locations. Other classes that were available at the center are not currently being offered. Additionally, because of the loss of the indoor gym/basketball courts, youth and adults are missing out on recreational opportunities. There are no appreciable plans to replace these services any time soon.

What have you been working on recently? What’s the timeline for the recreation center reopening?

CHEER has been instrumental in bringing community members like myself, along with social service organizations and county officials together to engage in conversations about how we can work together to support our community while the center is closed and well into the future. Through the Long Branch Partners group that CHEER facilitates and Long Branch Collective Action for Youth (a YMCA-CHEER partnership), we have been putting together funding requests and bringing a number of groups, churches, and leaders into the conversation to figure out how we can address the service gap. At this point, it looks like the community center won't be back open until April or May 2022.

What can people do to help?

People can:

1. Donate to CHEER. Currently, they are hoping to fund Camp Piney Branch!

2. If you live in the Sligo Branview Community Association area, you can join the listserve. Community members recently started a working group around the closure of the community center.

3. Contact elected officials:

County Executive Marc Elrich:

Let them know that you are displeased by the decision to close the community center to the public and not replace the services. It's good for them to hear from a number of community members.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Getting involved in advocacy can be intimidating. But it's important that our elected officials hear from a variety of community members, including community members who may not typically speak out. Consider starting with an email!


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