San Geronimo Valley center celebrates golden anniversary

David Briggs
Valley residents enjoyed a lunch of penne and marinara with Italian vegetables at the weekly senior lunch hosted at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. The center will celebrate its 50th anniversary this Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. with music, food trucks, town-versus-town games, a baking contest, hiking, mountain biking, painting, an art exhibit and more.  
10/03/2019

The San Geronimo Valley Community Center is marking its 50th anniversary with a celebration that will pack everything the center does into one event. “This is unlike anything we’ve ever done. We’re really, really going all out on this,” executive director Dave Cort said.

The Oct. 5 celebration will have something for everyone, beginning with a mountain bike ride or community hike mid-morning. At noon, an opening ceremony will kick off the celebration, complete with a kids' zone with bouncy house, local food trucks and live music from several artists and bands. The biannual valley games, where villages compete in pickleball, ping pong, hacky sack, obstacle courses and more, will be folded into the festivities.

In the center art gallery, “Where We Call Home,” a collection of landscapes from valley artists, will open, and members of NextGen, a program meant to shape young adult leaders, will be painting a mural live. Peter Oppenheimer will present a slideshow called “San Geronimo Valley Faces and Places” and a film about the valley by Tom and Amy Valens, “Embracing Community,” will be screened.

“We want to celebrate and acknowledge our past, but also look at how the community center can be a healthy sustainable organization, both programmatically and financially, for the next 50 years,” Mr. Cort said.

He sees three key components of success: financial support, staffing and building maintenance. The community center is funded equally by grants, local donors and program fees. To grow donations, the center created a fund development team to expand the annual donor base and establish an endowment that generates interest revenue for the budget. 

The center also needs a strong, local staff. “We’re really trying to up our game in terms of salary, benefits and professional development,” Mr. Cort said. Maintaining the 90-year-old building and the nine-year-old gym is another challenge. “We’re bursting at the seams,” he said.

The community center has come a long way since its conception as an art center in 1969. It was volunteer run for its first 30 years, but today has a staff of 12 and a $1.35 million annual budget. The center is an intervillage gathering place—the heart of the valley, both spiritually and physically, Mr. Cort said. 

The building was constructed in 1927 as the third schoolhouse in the valley, according to historian Owen Clapp. It served students from kindergarten to eighth grade in the Lagunitas School District for over 40 years. In the 1930s, a Parisian living in Marin named Maurice Del Mue was commissioned by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration to paint a large oil painting for the building. The scene of a ranch overlooking Tomales Bay is still on display.

In 1967, the building was condemned for school use because it wasn’t earthquake safe. Valley residents weren’t sure what to do with the now-vacant building, where transients burned campfires on the floors of the old classrooms. 

When trustees announced they wanted to tear down the building, Jean Berensmeier—now celebrated as the center’s founder—said, “Tear down this school building? I’ll lie down in front of the bulldozers first.” She recounted the early days of the center in the 2017 community guide. “After some discussion, trustees agreed that it was a shame to destroy the building with its wide porticos, arches, and historic WPA mural, and agreed to lease it to me for $1.00 per day per classroom for after school art classes,” she wrote. 

Yet when supporters of the art center proposed a long-term lease, controversy struck. Conservatives, ranchers and longtime residents wanted to see the building become a sheriff’s substation. But “after long hearings and many heated words,” Ms. Berensmeier wrote, trustees sided with the art center and have renewed its lease ever since.

The center’s first major event was a holiday arts fair—a gathering of 150 valley artists in 1969—that continues to this day. Through the 1970s, children practiced macramé, leather craft, speed-reading, ballet, filmmaking, archery, clay animation and crochet in classes. Adults practiced yoga, carpentry, tai chi, nuclear survival and bagpiping. The center had an annual budget of just a couple thousand dollars, so volunteers sold pink “survival cards” to fund the deteriorating building.

In 1980, the center was renovated thanks to an influx of grant money. Offices were added and the WPA mural was restored. The building reopened in 1981 as a community center that hosted more than just art classes—food co-ops and planning groups also used the space. The center hired its first employee.

In the 1990s, the center’s board changed the name to call it a cultural center and hired a director, Dave Cort, who expanded classes, programs and events. The cultural center became more involved with Lagunitas School through afterschool childcare and teen programs. 

In 2003, the name was changed back to its current iteration. The center entered into a joint use agreement with the Lagunitas School District to build a gym and youth center that opened in 2010, the culmination of a longtime partnership.

It’s hard to say where the school stops and the community center picks up, Lagunitas School principal Laura Shain said. The community center offers tutoring and a summer bridge program to help orient incoming kindergarteners to class routines; this summer, it started a similar program for students entering middle school. “While many of our joint ventures are through formal arrangements, much of our collaboration is either spontaneous or simply from shared love for our school and community,” Ms. Shain said. 

The school recently formalized an agreement for translation and family liaison services with a Spanish-speaking staff member from the community center, and the two parties are working on an educational pathway along Larsen Creek. The center also just launched a pilot program to transport students from Nicasio School so they can join valley students in afterschool activities.

After 50 years, Mr. Cort is proud that the community center is willing to grow, change and do better. “We’re never really static,” he said. “We always feel young and fresh—even though we’re 50 years old.”

 

For the complete lineup of events at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center’s Golden Anniversary Celebration, visit sgvcc.org.