It was just before 3 p.m. Monday when the first school bus pulled up in front of the Boys & Girls Club of Westminster’s new location at 71 E. Main St., and through the front windows staff could be seen forming a line to greet the children as they entered the new building for the first time.
Chief among the greeting party was the club’s executive director, Bonnae Meshulam, who was there as a handful of students from Friendship Valley Elementary School burst into the brightly lit interior, smiles on faces hosting eyes wide with excitement, and perhaps even a little overwhelmed. Sheena Watson, 8, was the last of the group inside, and teary-eyed, she embraced Meshulam.
“It makes me so happy,” Sheena said, “It makes me cry!”
Meshulam, seemingly, also.
“We’re crying because we’re so happy,” she said to Sheena. “Let’s go put your coat up, OK?”
It was exactly the type of response Meshulam had predicted Monday morning, when the club opened its doors for a community open house so that donors, and parents and officials could see the end results of the yearlong, $3 million project to renovate an old, vacant bank building.
“The kids are going to be so excited when they get here,” she said. “It’s fun, it’s colorful and we really feel this is a second home for our children. We are a family, no matter how many kids we are.”
But a little less than a year ago, when Meshulam helped kick off the capital campaign for the new club, the Boys & Girls Club family had fully outgrown its old location at 25 Union St. The club was servicing 110 children in a 2,500-square-foot space at the time, so new children and families were stuck on a waiting list.
“We’ve gone from 2,500 square feet to almost 20,000 square feet, so it’s a big difference,” Meshulam said, and the plan is to expand beyond even that.
“As soon as we finish raising the funds, we will build a gymnasium and once that happens, we will be able to serve 600 children each and every day,” she said. “That’s so exciting for us.”
But for now, the children will enjoy a lot more space — two whole floors — and a lot more to do within it: A music and dance studio contains a piano and guitars; a radio/DJ station and a basement lounge for the teenagers includes air hockey, table tennis and video games; while the upstairs lounge for the younger children features colorful, curved sofas and cushions with a design aesthetic that would fit in on any Silicon Valley tech giant’s campus. Inside the former bank vault, a recording studio will later be installed, the heavy steel door from the Mosler Safe Co. of Hamilton, Ohio, standing open.
“The vault looks really cool,” said 14-year-old Jamie Goodwin, an eighth-grader at East Middle School. “The door is permanently stuck there.”
The vault sits catty-corner to a book nook and library space, equipped with plush chairs and pillows, which also impressed Dillon Hereth, 14, an eighth-grader at West Middle school.
“The [library] that we had didn’t really have a section for older-kid books. It was essentially just for elementary school kids,” he said. “So now we have books that capture my interests instead of just dinosaurs.”
But it was the sheer amount of space — particularly in the lounge areas for elementary and middle school students — that seemed to impress the children the most Monday afternoon.
“It’s way bigger than I thought it would be,” said 10-year-old Alexa Dixon, who came in with the first group of Friendship Valley students. “I love the couches, they’re really comfortable.”
“No joke, it’s unbelievable,” said Westminster Councilman Tony Chiavacci, of the same decor that had impressed Dixon, who had come to the open house Monday morning. “lf I were a teenager, I would want to hang out here.”
Carroll County Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, was also impressed with the transformation of what had been a vacant old bank building into a welcoming space for children and teens.
“I went through the tour when they were building this place and you went downstairs — let’s face the facts, it was a basement. It was kind of dingy and dark and had that basement smell,” Frazier said. “You come in now and it’s so bright, it’s so airy — the transformation is just unbelievable.”
Impressive to both officials was just how much of the club’s new digs came about through donations from the community and local businesses. The Board of County Commissioners had written a letter that helped the club acquire some state grant funding, according to Frazier, and the City of Westminster waived the fees for some parking spaces and helped smooth the permitting process, according to Chiavacci, but it was really the community that came through with the funding.
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“This is such a big asset to the community,” Frazier said. “In Carroll County, we come together for things like this.”