As a young girl growing up in Smoketown, Ellen Sloan had many fun times at the historic Presbyterian Community Center.
“I had cooking classes in that building,” said Sloan, thinking back to the 1960s. “ … There was a skating rink up there, we had movies, and then out on the property around it in the summer, we had all kinds of arts and crafts and softball and basketball and there were all kinds of tournaments — everything out there. There was something there for everybody.”
The building at 760 S. Hancock St., which sat vacant for a number of years, has a chance to become a hub of activity again when the Smoketown Family Wellness Center opens there soon.
The wellness center, founded by Louisville physician Charlotte Stites, will offer a full-spectrum of pediatric care plus family coaching. There also will be various activities, from healthy cooking and exercise classes to community dinners, to promote disease prevention and build a sense of community.
“We are more than a clinic,” said Stites, explaining that she and the staff want to be partners with families.
“We’re all on the same team,” she said. “ … It takes a village to raise healthy children.”
A grand opening from 1-3 p.m. Saturday is expected to attract dignitaries, such as Mayor Greg Fischer, Congressman John Yarmuth and State Rep. Attica Scott, as well as Smoketown residents, who’ll be able to share their memories of the neighborhood.
“My mom (Ruby Hyde) was a water girl for (Muhammad) Ali when he was over there boxing, so it’s just a lot of rich tradition right there inside of that place, which is going to be able to revive that area,” said Nachand Hyde-Trabue, a wellness center board member who grew up in Smoketown.
The wellness center is “going to bring forth a sense of pride in our neighborhood, which is going to be amazing, and it’s going to bring forth a sense of unity,” she said.
The area already has gone through a rebirth, of sorts, due in part to the city’s replacement of the Sheppard Square public housing project with attractive, mixed-income housing.
The $100 million revitalization project, which includes the revamped community center, features 287 rental units, said Tim Barry, director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority. It also will include 23 single-family units. (Eleven of the single-family lots have been spoken for.)
In addition to the wellness center, the former community center building includes 32 apartments that already have been filled, Barry said. There’s also a meeting room, and some unused space on the ground level of the building may be used to display memorabilia, showcasing the history of Sheppard Square and Smoketown.
Barry predicts the building — owned by the housing authority since 2003 — will become “a real epicenter” of activity with the addition of the wellness center.
“I think the folks in Sheppard Square and even beyond in Smoketown will welcome the services that the wellness center is going to offer and I think they’ll flock to it, particularly the pediatric clinic because that’s such an asset to the neighborhood,” he said.
Stites, a pediatrician, has been working for about four years to bring the wellness center to fruition in the hopes of improving the health of residents in the area, where too many people die from chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes.
“We have been in conversation with the housing authority since some point in 2014 about being in this space” and had nearly $500,000 in construction work done to transform the space, she said.
The ultimate goal is saving lives, she said. “The idea behind this is that we fundamentally want to increase the life expectancy of a child in Smoketown 10 years to that of the average in Louisville.”
Stites, who hopes to start seeing patients by late spring, embraces the idea that 20 percent of one’s health and well-being is rooted in clinical care, 30 percent in lifestyle, 40 percent in socioeconomic factors and 10 percent in the physical environment, such as air and water quality.
Many diseases “start with the food we eat, the exercise we get, our exposure to cigarettes, our success in school, and exposure to adverse childhood experiences, and if we can address those issues from the beginning of life, then we think we can impact and improve children’s lifelong health,” she said.
The wellness center occupies nearly 4,000 square feet on the ground level of the former community center. It includes a medical office, a teaching kitchen, a food pantry, a literacy area and flexible space to host various classes and activities.
“We want to see families a lot,” Stites said. “We want to see them to support them in maintaining their wellness.”
Instead of trying to provide all the programming itself, the wellness center will open its doors to community organizations that may be able to help residents access or learn about things like diabetes prevention, fresh produce, financial literacy, after-school tutoring and parenting classes.
“We really want to match the programming that we have with the needs of the families we serve,” Stites said.
Hyde-Trabue is excited that the wellness center won’t just be a place for people to get shots.
“You’re able to go there to get empowered and to be inspired and that’s what I like about the Smoketown Family Wellness Center,” said Hyde-Trabue, founder and chief executive officer of Manhattan on Broadway, a full-service event venue.
Spalding University, which won a federal grant of more than $1 million, has partnered with the wellness center to provide mental and behavioral health services, Stites said.
Also, a coach, funded by the Lift a Life Foundation, will meet with families to determine their strengths and what they would like help with. She will screen for adverse childhood experiences, such as stress in the family that’s perhaps leading to stomach-aches and absenteeism.
Being there for families is important, said Executive Director Kish Cumi.
“Support is huge especially when you don’t really have reliable connections,” said Cumi, a single mom. “When someone can come along side you and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to join forces with you and to help you and if you’re going through something, we’re going through it,’ that is huge. That’s life-changing and so that’s what we want to help offer to families.”
Sloan, a wellness center board member who moved back to Smoketown nine years ago, can’t wait for the center’s opening.
“Being able to touch multi-generations and to start the kids off with positive outlooks, good healthy ways to live and think, and then to encourage the families to partake in that, I just see that it will open the community back up,” said Sloan, who is 60-plus years old. “It will bring Smoketown back to life like it was when I was a kid growing up here.”