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Re-imagining the Kindergarten Room

You may have read somewhere already that *cino is going for a $50,000 grant through the Pepsi Refresh Project, which is giving away $1.3 million each month to organizations selected by popular vote. So what are we going to do with $50,000? Well, here’s what we’re thinking.
We’re big believers in the idea that new spaces create new possibilities. Obviously, 27,000 square feet is A LOT of space with A LOT of potential, but the problem is: at the moment, none of that space is heated and therefore, the water is shut off to avoid broken pipes and the like. What we have now is essentially one heck of a tent. And that tent’s going to take money somewhere in the millions to fully restore and renovate for the big purposes we have in mind, which is a full-blown community center shared by multiple non-profits serving local youth and families, as well as a residential off-campus program for college students from around the country.
So: we’re starting with one room. One room to rule them all (that was a Lord of the Rings joke–not a very good one). The room we’ve chosen is the old kindergarten room, a 1,600 square foot space on the north end of the main floor. Why this room? Well, it has a separate outside entrance, which is crucial for getting a standalone space up and running–that way people don’t have to traipse through a construction zone to get in. Also, it has two attached bathrooms. In terms of visual interest, it features original maple floors and woodwork, with high ceilings. Plus, it’s a neat shape–kind of octagonal on one end, with an old slate chalkboard. If you sneak a peak inside the storage closet, there’s also a beautiful original built-in unit that was included on the original 1918 blueprints.
I bet your next question is: what will we do with this room? Having already watched a couple of films and hosted a few musicians there, we’ve realized it makes a very nice space for live performance and other arts activities for a relatively intimate crowd–up to about 100 people. We’ve also done some research about all-ages music venues and talked with some local high school students who are very excited about the possibility of running their own music venue. In a small town like Three Rivers, where the local teens often end up hanging out at Meijer on the weekends, some positive late-night activity seems like a really good thing. We have some wonderful arts organizations in Three Rivers–the Carnegie Center, the Riviera Theatre, the Three Rivers Artists Guild–and we’d love to cultivate a passion for the arts in local youth that will connect them to these organizations, potentially for the rest of their lives.
We’re also excited about the potential of the room as a site for after-school and summer programs that serve the neighborhood kids and their families. The school bus already drops students off right outside the kindergarten room door. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some local senior citizens and other adults waiting for those kids with snacks to ask how their days went, help with homework and do crafts together? We think it would be great, for both the kids and the adults. Some of the kids have very strong families, while others could use a little extra care–all of them could benefit from healthy, inter-generational friendships.
In addition to providing a space for programming, we hope to create a room that has some revenue potential for additional renovations to the school. Maybe a church will want to begin holding weekly services there. Maybe a community organization will start holding meetings or conducting some of its programming there. Maybe someone will even get married there! A major goal is to make the space beautiful, whimsical, imaginative and elegant so that it can serve a wide variety of purposes, from very functional to highly ceremonial.
And let’s not forget how the room will serve a need we’ve had for almost a year now: hospitality to service groups. We’ve had over 100 volunteers give over 1,400 hours of service at the school already, doing everything from routine maintenance to ripping out walls. At times, it was very cold work with no heat in the building. It would be nice to have a space to show proper hospitality to our wonderful volunteers in all seasons of the year.
Even though we’ll be working with a strict budget, we want this room to be a life-sized model of what the lovely old school can become–a space filled with color and light and art, a space that inspires people to dream about what’s possible beyond what is. We also want to honor the history of the room so that visitors who attended kindergarten in the space can still see their old classroom. The old circle on the wood floor has to stay, and hopefully the chalkboard as well.
We also want the room to be a model of the green building techniques we hope to implement throughout the building, so that it’s highly efficient to maintain. Super-insulation methods will keep the heating bills low, while other elements like water-saving appliances and non-toxic building materials will be good for both humans and our local watershed.
Any questions? We’re certainly open to your comments, ideas and inquiries. Please feel free to post things here or get in touch another way. We’ve been making some progress in the past year and a half, but we’re excited for this next phase of the work. Help us re-imagine the kindergarten room for the future of the school building, the neighborhood and our city!

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Kirstin is a member of the *culture is not optional core community and is the Head Caretaker at GilChrist Retreat Center.