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A Spark of Life for Old Junior High

  • Jose Braden of Lebanon, N.H., plays air hockey with Joseph Bannister, 16, of Lebanon, N.H. (not pictured), during the grand opening of the Spark Community Center in the former Lebanon Junior High School in  Lebanon,  N.H., on June 20, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Jose Braden of Lebanon, N.H., plays air hockey with Joseph Bannister, 16, of Lebanon, N.H. (not pictured), during the grand opening of the Spark Community Center in the former Lebanon Junior High School in Lebanon, N.H., on June 20, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Visitors enter the new Spark Community Center at the former Lebanon Junior High School in Lebanon, N.H., on June 20, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Visitors enter the new Spark Community Center at the former Lebanon Junior High School in Lebanon, N.H., on June 20, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Visitors to the Spark Community Center Open House check out the view from a newly renovated studio apartment in the former Lebanon Junior High School Spark in Lebanon,  N.H., on June 20, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Visitors to the Spark Community Center Open House check out the view from a newly renovated studio apartment in the former Lebanon Junior High School Spark in Lebanon, N.H., on June 20, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jose Braden of Lebanon, N.H., plays air hockey with Joseph Bannister, 16, of Lebanon, N.H. (not pictured), during the grand opening of the Spark Community Center in the former Lebanon Junior High School in  Lebanon,  N.H., on June 20, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Visitors enter the new Spark Community Center at the former Lebanon Junior High School in Lebanon, N.H., on June 20, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Visitors to the Spark Community Center Open House check out the view from a newly renovated studio apartment in the former Lebanon Junior High School Spark in Lebanon,  N.H., on June 20, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Lebanon — An open house Friday celebrated the old junior high building’s new life as a home — for both a community center for people with special needs, and the occupants of 42 loft-style studio apartments.

Built around 1927, the fate of the building on Bank Street was uncertain, after voters supported a proposal to build a new middle school in the city. But in 2012, voters rejected a move to demolish the building.

“I was afraid it was going to be torn down,” said Alan Clark, who now lives in Canaan. Like many of those touring the building Friday afternoon, he had attended the school, which contains “a lot of memories.” Clark recalled that a teacher there had shown him how to play tennis — in the parking lot. He still plays, he said.

The new apartments, which include LED lights and high-efficiency propane heaters, range from about 300 to 800 square feet. They rent for $780 to $1290 a month, plus utilities. All but a half a dozen are spoken for, with about 25 already occupied.

The open house kicked off with a laughter-filled ceremony introducing the board members, staff and mission of Spark Community Center, which was designed for adults with special needs, their families and caregivers, and other community members.

During the ceremony, held on the field adjacent to the building, Philip Eller, executive director of the Special Needs Support Center in Lebanon, shared his excitement about the new nonprofit.

“This is a dream that parents have been having in our community for at least for 20 or 30 years, and it’s finally coming to pass,” said Eller, a Spark board member.

Spark was founded by Lisa Green, the parent of an adult son with autism and epilepsy, and disability rights advocate John Fenley. It has five staff members, including executive director Brett Mayfield, who lives in White River Junction. Mayfield, whose daughter has special needs, has run special needs programs overseas. His role with Spark will include overseeing its mission, staff and fundraising, he said.

They hope to offer at least one class a day, and community members are encouraged to get involved, through teaching or stopping in to talk with people and play games, Mayfield said in an interview before the ceremony. “It’s open to anybody. It isn’t just people with challenges. We all have challenges.”

In addition to introducing the center’s board and staff members, Green and Fenley presented awards to local people who have been “very supportive to us and the special needs community,” Green, board president, said in an interview last week. They included Bente Torjusen, executive director of AVA Gallery and Art Center; Charles Therriault, of Franklin Lodge No. 6 of Free and Accepted Masons in Lebanon; and developer Mike Davidson, who owns the building.

Green and Fenley had a vision of what could be here, in the beautiful building that had “probably outlived its usefulness as a school,” said Davidson, a Lebanon resident, during the ceremony. It was a vision that resonated with him.

“Spark should be right here, in the middle of the community,” he said, prompting enthusiastic applause from the audience, who filled most of the seats set up under two large tents. “They started here with absolutely nothing but a passion, and I share that, and I admire that.”

The center, which rents space in the building, has been supported by grants and donations from individuals. It is currently holding a “buy a brick” campaign, said Fenley, who will serve on the activities staff. The bricks, which will decorate a wall in the center, cost $50.

The ceremony, which drew more than 200 people, also included the reading of a congratulatory letter from U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., along with a description of the center’s plans. They have met with several other local nonprofits, including Global Campuses Foundation, Zack’s Place and the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, and plan to collaborate with them on projects, Green said. A July 4 celebration in Lebanon will include a yard sale in front of the Upper Valley Senior Center, followed by old-fashioned field games and a dance at Spark.

After the talks, the audience crowded into the recently renovated space, which is furnished with donations from businesses and individuals. In the main room, a sofa and armchairs are clustered around a flat screen TV. Nearby stand foosball and air hockey tables, along with tables and chairs and a bank of computers. One wall is painted aqua, the others white, and the space is decorated with framed artwork by participants in Art Lab, an ongoing program offered by the Special Needs Support Center and AVA Gallery and Art Center.

“It’s amazing what they’ve done with the old wood shop,” said Jeff Peavey, chairman of the Lebanon School Board, who toured the space after the ceremony.

The center also includes office space and room for a kitchen. Part of its role will be to provide information about other local activities, programs and services for adults with special needs, their families and caregivers. The center will also organize special events, such as theater productions and musicals, and perhaps a comic book convention, Fenley said during the ceremony. “There are nerds around here, and I’m one of them,” he said, laughing. “If we can imagine it, we’ll try to make it happen.”

Organizers hope to have a handicap-accessible community garden in place on the grounds next summer.

Jose Braden, 20, plans to be at the new center “most of the time now,” socializing, and volunteering, doing “techy stuff,” such as helping with the computers.

Braden, a member of the Spark board who takes Art Lab classes and volunteers at AVA, was happy to see the center open, “because of all the fun, caring people, and the history that’s built into this school,” he said. “We need a lot of fun things around here.”

Spark is open Tuesdays through Thursdays, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, from 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, go to www.sparkcommunitycenter.com.

The open house continues today, from 1 to 5 p.m., at the community center.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.