A Preschool's Best Friend
Innsbrook Rotary Club's anniversary project expands the Coal Pit Learning Center
Issue: June 2011
Coal Pit Learning Center founder Dorothy Gallimore is surrounded by her preschoolers.

It is fitting that a granite plaque from the Rotary Club of Innsbrook lies under flowering shrubs in a manicured flower bed at the entrance of the Coal Pit Learning Center. Like the perennials surrounding its marker, the club has roots in this western Henrico County school.

Over the years, the Rotary Club has produced a bounty of donations for the nonprofit preschool operating out of a century-old building on Francistown Road. But it was the club’s biggest project in its history that recently transformed the learning center, which also provides after-school care.

  ‘A Loving Environment’
Coal Pit Learning Center director Dorothy Gallimore

Without the Rotary Club of Innsbrook, “We wouldn’t have this wonderful school and the kids full-time,” says Dorothy Gallimore, the school’s founder and director. The club has also provided a van for field trips, expanded the playground and added landscaping, she says. “They have been a real blessing to the children and me; they are always there for us.”

Fred Thompson, whose architecture firm took on the Coal Pit project,
is a Rotarian.

When the doors to the school reopened last September after renovations, its space had doubled to 3,000 square feet, its hours were expanded and the facility was completely up to code. The retail value for the project was $350,000 — all donated under the leadership of a club whose charity projects are far-reaching.

In commemoration of the club’s 20th year, members decided in 2008 to undertake a signature project that was environmentally responsible, beneficial to children, meaningful to members and in keeping with the Rotary theme of “Making Dreams Real.”   

“The club wanted to do something special for our 20th year and more than just stroke a check,” says Fred Thompson, a charter club member whose firm, Architects Dayton Thompson and Associates, provided architectural and design services for the project, which started in 2008 and spanned two years.

The club had received 14 proposals for various projects.

Innsbrook Rotary Club president Gerard Shaia opens the groupís
weekly meeting.

“We said we have been helping [Coal Pit] a little bit along the way, but we never did anything big,” Thompson says. “We said if we don’t help, then who will? [Coal Pit’s proposal] was also the only handwritten application. Many 
others were slick promotions. You could see [Gallimore’s]  passion 
in her handwriting. That’s the way it started.”

Gallimore’s proposal was to reach more low-income families. Originally built as a schoolhouse for children of African-American coal miners, the building sat vacant for years until 1976, when Gallimore reopened it with the goal of helping to prepare needy children to succeed in school. But the facility’s cramped space and aging structure limited capacity.

Initially, Coal Pit Learning Center offered free preschool for children ages 3 to 5 two or three mornings per week. Expanded space and hours at the facility allow parents to work full-time jobs more easily. The center, which currently has 22 children enrolled, now charges nominal tuition and fees based on a sliding scale.

It did not take long for Rotarians to get to work by tapping numerous and diverse sources. During a sour economy, the club networked to garner $250,000 worth of in-kind donations of materials, labor and services from more than 30 businesses, community organizations, individuals and local churches, as well as Rotary District 7600 (covering south-central and eastern Virginia) and members of other Rotary clubs. That augmented cash contributions of $100,000.

“So many things were donated, like $6,000 worth of windows and $32,000 [in value for] an entire HVAC system [from James River Air Conditioning Co.], which was one of the first major donations,” Thompson says. “They set the bar for everyone else.”

All of the Innsbrook club’s 100 members were involved in some way in the project. It embodies the club’s powerful fellowship and service, and enhances the lives of children, deepens community connections and builds goodwill, says Gerard Shaia, the club’s president.

To encourage similar endeavors, the school will be showcased as a template during a breakout session of the regional Rotary district conference in September.

“We will describe the project, what we learned and what we did and how we did it to educate other clubs on how to do it,” Shaia says.

Rotary International describes itself as the world’s first service club organization, with more than 1.2 million members in 33,000 clubs in more than 200 countries. Rotary club members volunteer their time locally, regionally and internationally to combat hunger, improve health and sanitation, provide education and job training, promote peace and eradicate polio under the motto “Service Above Self.”

Another effort Innsbrook Rotarians are passionate about is the Healing Hearts Program, an international project that involves four Richmond-area Rotary clubs sponsoring heart surgeries for children from the islands of St. Vincent and St. Lucia, in cooperation with the World Pediatric Project (formerly known as the International Hospital for Children). The other clubs are Richmond, Bon Air and Huguenot. The clubs not only provide local funding but also work to make the stay for the children and their parents comfortable, says Beth Noakes, coordinator of the four clubs’ efforts.

“The children and their guardians are here for six to eight weeks,” Noakes says. “We try to make their stay as pleasant as possible. We try to help them pass the time and give them a sense of Richmond.” He says he has picked up children and their parent or guardian at the airport, delivered meals and purchased a circus ticket for a boy the night before his surgery.

Other projects during the past year for the Innsbrook Rotarians include helping adults at the READ Center (Reading and Education for Adult Development), assist-
ing Meals on Wheels and buying Christmas gifts for 
needy families.

While the club’s signature project was completed last year, its relationship with the Coal Pit Learning Center continues. The club donates books to the school, and in May, volunteers beautified the grounds with fresh landscaping and painted the school’s interior. The club is also working to obtain a new fence for the facility, which operates on an annual budget of $90,000.

Gallimore, the school’s director, says the school thrives in part because of the Rotary Club’s generosity. “I am getting older,” she says, adding, “Thank heaven they are here for me.”

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