Binghampton welcomes return of Caritas Village after 14-month renovation

On August 25, after 14 months of renovation, Binghampton’s Caritas Village opened its doors again. The smell of new paint filled the entrance way, and the smell of burgers and hot dogs filled the cafe. The space was lit with bright, natural light from the newly installed energy efficient windows as well as the energy of the long-awaited reunion.

Community members said it felt like a coming home of sorts.

“It’s been lonely without Caritas,” said Flor Cordova, a 20-year resident of Binghampton whose three daughters have grown up attending classes and events at Caritas, located at 2509 Harvard Avenue.

“There hasn’t really been a space for the community to gather,” added Joni Laney, Cordova’s neighbor and a 16-year resident.

Caritas is a nonprofit community center that has been a staple of Binghampton since it opened in 2006. It’s home to countless activities — holiday meals, summer camps, yoga classes, and a free health clinic to name a few. It also operates a community cafe where neighbors can enjoy a meal and participate in their pay-it-forward program so that no one leaves hungry.

The 8,000-square-foot center closed in June 2017 to renovate and regroup after Onie Johns, the center’s founding executive director, stepped down. In June 2018, Mac Edwards joined as Caritas’ new executive director in anticipation of the relaunch. He'll now lead the board, staff, and volunteers in an overhaul of the organization's strategic plans, funding structure, and even the menu.

“[Caritas is] ground zero for Binghampton,” said Edwards. “It’s a clearinghouse for art, culture, music, latchkey kids, social justice, spirituality, exercise ... we want to make Binghampton better.”

Related: “Caritas Village provides community in Binghampton

Edwards, who founded restaurants The Farmer and Pharm2Fork, said the mid-century building was once a Masonic lodge and has long been in need of major repair, but there was no budget for it. He describes their previous renovations as “bailing wire and bubblegum” — quick, cheap fixes until funding could be found.

A $1 million capital improvement campaign beginning in 2016 raised $500,000 towards the repairs including new HVAC, fire detection, and security systems, as well as upgrades to the restroom, new floors, a new counter and an updated kitchen.

Neighborhood children look down Harvard Avenue from one of Caritas' new energy efficient windows. (Shelda Edwards)

Edwards said that like the building, the menu is getting some much-needed attention. Some beloved items like burgers and soups will stay but some items will be improved — like adding real Chihuahua cheese to the cafe's quesadilla. Other items will be completely new collaborations between Edwards and head chef Randy Rogers. The cafe will also work to be more farm-to-table oriented and incorporate ingredients from local and regional farmers like Marmilu Farms out of Jackson, Tenn. and Rose Creek Farms located in Selmer, Tenn.

Board member Peter Hossler said these more tangible changes were necessary, but it’s the changes to the organization’s structure that will determine Caritas’ future success.

He said Caritas is like many Memphis nonprofits, founded by a passionate and committed leader who dedicated her life to the organization, but now that Johns is retired, the leadership of Caritas is faced with a major reevaluation of its structure and sustainability.

"I'll still be here, of course, but I'm looking forward to just enjoying it and letting them run it,” Johns said about the homegrown community center’s new leadership.

Edwards referred to Johns as “the godmother of Binghampton.” She worked 80-hour weeks for the last 10 years without taking a salary. Johns retired in February 2017, and Caritas needed someone to take over the workload. Unfortunately, they couldn’t expect someone else to work for free.

“She built this beautiful foundation, but then there are questions like how do you transition to a slightly different model because it’s impossible [to maintain as is],” said Hossler.

Edwards and Hossler said that in order to continue providing free space and activities for the community, they’ll be hosting more paid events like concerts and wine dinners and promoting their 4,000-square-foot upstairs theater space for private rentals. They also plan to be more intentional in fundraising, pressing the need for both large donors and large numbers of donors regardless of amount.

The transition also includes a more streamlined mission statement and intentionality in programming and planning.

“If you had to list the programs we do, it’s a super short list. If you had to list the activities that happen here, it’s actually quite long,” said Hossler.

Festivals, a medical clinic, youth art programs, bible studies, and dozens of other programs have been hosted by Caritas but facilitated by other groups. Caritas wants to be more strategic in their own programming and recruiting partnership programs to fill specific community needs, especially around youth engagement.

What’s not changing is the spirit and purpose of the place. It will still be a center for community with free events, programming, and meeting space. It will still be a nonprofit cafe with a pay-it-forward model. It will still be a space to just sit and read or take in the local art.

At the reopening, neighbors took a moment to listen to a young boy tell a story he workshopped with Caritas board member, Blake Barber. (Shelda Edwards)

Some of the groups that met at Caritas have found new homes, but the center is looking forward to new relationships — like Indie Memphis, their partner for their first big post-renovation event on August 29 — and the return of many of their old groups like the Lynching Site Project, which held bi-weekly meetings at the Binghampton center.

Randall Gamble is a member of the Lynching Site Project, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of today’s racial inequities by examining those of the past, specifically lynchings of Black people from 1877 to 1950. Shelby County had the highest rate of lynchings in Tennessee during that time.

Gamble attended the grand reopening and said there’s a good reason his organization and he individually are excited for the return of Caritas.

“It’s soul food and food for the soul ... I’m getting food for the spirit and food for the body,” he said.

It’s a nourishment that’s been missing since last June. Residents and the Caritas team said the thing they were most looking forward to was the return of life and connectivity to the corner of Harvard Avenue and Merton Street.

“We’re super excited to be a resource for other people who have passions and interest and want to connect,” said Hossler.

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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.