The Lester Community Center provides a home away from home for Binghampton children.
For many residents of the Binghampton neighborhood, the Lester Community Center is more than just a gym; it is a community hub, a home, a family.
Situated on Tillman Street, the community center is readily identifiable by the huge, bright murals of smiling children and positive messages painted onto the walls. It lies directly in the middle of the Binghampton neighborhood, providing a city pool, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, computer labs, and multiple programs for adults and children to be involved in.
Walter Casey has been the only director to ever run the Lester Community Center. He opened it in 1980 and has been running programs and building neighborhood relationship in Binghampton for the past 36 years. A city employee jokingly bet him that the center wouldn’t stay standing for five years, more than three decades later it is safe to say that Casey won that bet.
Walking into the center you will be amazed by the sheer number of people utilizing the space, especially during the summer camp program, but no matter the numbers Casey can be found running the show.
The summer day camp is the largest program at Lester. It operates from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., every weekday, for eight weeks. More than 150 children between the ages of 5 and 15 spend their summers with Casey and his staff, the amazing thing is they only have to pay $81 (with government assistance) or $162 for eight full weeks of education and recreational fun. Sixty of the 150 children are on full scholarship to the program because their family is at the poverty level.
“The kids that are here aren’t coming for just an hour or two,” said Casey. “These kids are coming from open to close, staying at the community center with their friends all day. This is like a home to them, I don’t have to worry about what these kids are doing because they are here.”
Another popular program that Casey runs is the basketball program. Although the amount of teams varies from year to year, Casey said he has had as many as 16 teams before. This year he had eight teams, the players ranging from 8 to 18 that played from December to February.
Casey said that most of the kids he has had in the past will come back to Binghampton and their kids will come to the center to play basketball for him.
He knows the children’s’ parents, their grandparents, and in some cases their great-grandparents. He said these community ties are very important when it comes to dealing with correctional punishment because the parents want their children in the center.
“I’ve had parents come up here after their kid got in trouble telling me their child will do whatever they need to in order to come back,” said Casey, who has a strict no-troublemaking policy. “The child will have to work a certain amount of volunteer hours for the center before they are allowed to participate again.”
The center does more than give Binghampton residents a place to send their children for summer camp. It provides free meals during the summertime, holiday parties, educational programming, a city pool, back-to-school supply giveaways, food drives, neighborhood parties, and so much more. It is truly a gathering place where families can learn and grow together.
Nicole Buffington is a volunteer from the Junior League of Memphis that works with the Lester Community Center. “It’s really special to be involved over there, the community is so close and I love being a part of it.”
The Junior League operates a bi-weekly program during the school year for families to participate in activities together then sit down and have a meal with other families from the neighborhood.
“They do things that I can’t afford,” said Casey. “We are so lucky to have them involved over here.”
There are three computer labs at Lester, one is funded and run by the Grizzlies Foundation, the other two by the Junior League. The Junior League labs are for community members who need to use the Internet to do research and for job search purposes, the Grizzlies computer lab hosts educational classes and children’s camps. The Grizzlies Code Camp takes place in this lab every summer for six weeks and helps to promote digital knowledge in Memphis youth.
During the school year the community center runs the Homework Help program for students in Pre-K up to third grade. Lester staff picks up the students from school and takes them to the center for two hours of educational assistance and a lunch. This program helps parents who can’t get off work in time to pick up their kids from school, and it is completely free.
Beverly Harper has volunteered at Lester for 22 years, starting when her son was involved as a young boy. She can’t imagine the neighborhood with the center, in fact she said that reason she continues to help there is because of how integral it is to the families that live there.
“This place is too important for me to leave it, there are too many people raised up in this place,” she said. “The center is a huge part of the community, it’s like a home to some of these kids and they know if they come here they are family. We feed them, help them with homework, talk to them, keep them moving around doing things. If the center wasn’t here, where would our kids go?”
These are only a few of the many amazing programs that Lester Community Center has to offer the Binghampton neighborhood. Casey has managed to operate this facility for 36 years and counting, proving naysayers wrong time and time again.
The Binghampton community loves this center and it shows by how well they help to take care of it and by how many people are involved there. Multiple generations of families have walked through those doors to take advantage of what the center has to offer, a home away from home and a place for that community to thrive.