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Motivated by the worldwide makerspace movement, an innovation center on Charleston’s West Side is giving area residents first and second chances at professional success coupled with personal satisfaction.

At the Maker’s Center, opportunities are presented to obtain hands-on training through state-of-the-art technology and instruction from professionals and other volunteers from various industries and interests.

Whether to train for a new career or to curate a new hobby, Kanawha Valley residents can enroll for classes that include access to technology such as zSpace augmented reality, 3D printing and laser etching. A fully functioning wood shop and art studio also operate at the site.

The Maker’s Center is a ministry of Bible Center Church. It was launched this spring at 602 Patrick St., in Charleston. The BCC congregation, buoyed by a grant from The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, funds the nonprofit center’s programs and operations, which are designed to be an outreach as well as a training hub. The initiative serves those in recovery, those seeking employment, school-age children and members of the community at large.

“Bible Center Church wants to see local residents thrive and to imagine a brighter future for themselves and their families,” Bible Center Church director of communications Jessica VonCrist said. “The Maker’s Center on Charleston’s West Side was established as one avenue to accomplish that goal. By offering training in technology and the arts, it’s our hope that West Virginians needing hope and maybe even a second chance, will find it at the Maker’s Center.”

“We basically saw a lot of needs in the inner city, and we’re trying to fill in the needs that had gaps that our congregation was most suited to fill,” BCC City Ministries executive director Michelle Thompson said. “We wanted to help people coming out of recovery or incarceration or who were in generational poverty, make a difference and be exposed to new and different ideas and experiences. Our theme is ‘Dream. Learn. Innovate. Create.’

“We made an announcement to the congregation that it was going to be us and what we were capable of teaching. That was the basic idea of classes we wanted to teach,” Thompson said.

Hampton Andrews serves as the center’s manager, with daily duties such as building the course calendar, finding referrals, and creating and maintaining the center’s health and safety protocols during the pandemic.

“The response we get from a lot of our participants is that they’re excited that something like this is here,” the West Side resident said. “We have a lot of upper-end technology here if you like tech stuff. If you like to do stuff with your hands in carpentry, we have all kinds of avenues for you to create things in our wood shop. We incorporate everything we do with the Gospel and the Bible and presenting the love of Jesus to the community.

“It’s all in an effort to equip people who come to the Maker’s Center to see they can start up their own business as an entrepreneur with the skills they learn here or build your resume to be able to get a job,” Andrews said.

Along with BCC congregants, instructors come from other churches and resources throughout the community. Southridge Church of God, Jobs and Hope, CORE (Creating Opportunities for Recovery Employment) and other agencies are among those providing teaching and other support.

On the road (again)

As well as new-tech skills training, the Maker’s Center offers computer classes and various life skills instruction.

“Our most popular program is our driver’s ed program,” Thompson said. “We teach adult drivers who have been incarcerated and lost their license or who have lived in poverty and never had a car or an opportunity to learn to drive.

“Tena Webb is a retired Board of Education member and driver’s ed teacher, and she volunteered to teach at the class. I kind of put that in the back of my mind, and I realized a lot of people need driver’s licenses. I talked to [automobile dealer] Lester Raines, and he gave us a three-year lease on a new car.

“We not only teach students to drive, but we take them to the DMV and they use our car to take the test,” she said. “So far, we have a 100% success rate — all four students have passed their driving tests.”

Supporting a local school

Students not yet of driving age have also received education at the Maker’s Center. Before the COVID-19 school shutdown last semester, Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary fifth grade students learned about augmented reality and other 21st century disciplines each Thursday at the center, Thompson said. “Exposing them to augmented reality and computers was a great experience.”

She added the center hopes to resume the school programs in the future, possibly virtually.

Workshop makerspace

The Maker’s Center’s second-floor art studio houses space and supplies to practice floral design, cake decorating and sewing.

BCC member Susan Conner leads the art studio classes. Last week, she instructed a trio of students from the Recovery Point women’s recovery facility in floral design.

“Now the girls come over and do the designs and then we take the flowers to Hospice and they give them out to their patients,” Conner explained. “It’s turned out to be a good program where we can teach the girls at Recovery Point and Union Mission skills they can use when they get out of recovery, but then the flowers don’t go to waste, going on to hospice care patients.”

“We’re students in the first floral design class,” Recovery Point resident Ashley McElwee said. “We’ve come twice a week and learned how to arrange flowers artistically. ... I love working with my hands and having the opportunity to make something.”

“It’s something we like doing, and it’s therapy, basically,” fellow student Shauna Fowler said. “It’s creative, and it’s nice to stand back and look at something you’ve made and see people’s reaction to it.”

“When you’re in rehab, you’re building yourself up anyway, but they have done so much by letting us do this,” said student Rosetta Massey. “It’s not just [floral design] — they teach us about God. It’s like the Gospel through floral design. With Susan, we’ve made a lifelong friend and somebody we could look up to and admire. When you need advice, they’re always there, and I really enjoy coming down here.”

“The people here are more than friends — they’re like your family,” Fowler said. “They check on us to make sure we’re all right. Some of our families don’t even do that for us. It makes you feel really good to have someone who cares.”

Another woman received floral design training at the studio and found employment in the field. “Our goal is to help people find jobs, and she’s one of our success stories,” Thompson said.

Several of the wood shop volunteers are retirees who are away from the center under the current COVID-19 guidelines. They are hoping to return soon to continue workshops to make screens to place between students’ desks at Bible Center School and others. For the time being, maker-in-residence Adam Lucas is working on projects there, as well as facilitating 3D printing and other programs.

Lucas, the director of IT for MATRIC in South Charleston, is among the Maker’s Center founders who is transferring his professional skillsets to its various programs. “I’m kind of a technology guy,” he said. “I’ve been into 3D printing and other things for a while. I knew we didn’t have a makerspace here [in the area]. Most schools anymore don’t have wood shops or industrial arts-type stuff. I wanted to show kids you don’t have to buy everything — you can make stuff and you can fix stuff. You can take a picture you have in your head and make it, whether it’s with a 3D printer or wood or paper-macche or whatever.”

Lucas added that the wood shop area presents opportunities for do-it-yourselfers who may not have the level of equipment the center provides, and the facility can promote collaboration among those with varying levels of carpentry skills and craftsmanship.

Make-and-take programs

Low-enrollment make-and-take programs are open to the public at the art studio.

“It is a certificate program through the fall,” Thompson explained. “There’s one where students can make and take a Thanksgiving centerpiece home. There are make-and-takes in sewing, for making masks. Those are for the community. We’re doing very small classes of five to eight people. I think, nowadays, it helps people’s mental health to have a hobby.”

An afternoon wreath workshop was conducted at the Maker’s Center last Saturday.

Thompson said the classes are priced, in most cases, solely to cover the costs of materials. Enrollees can also exchange volunteer hours at the center for class costs, she said.

“We don’t want finances to be a barrier to keep someone from participating. For example, we don’t charge anyone from Recovery Point; we do everything for them pro bono.”

Rising to the pandemic challenge

This spring, Maker’s Center students and instructors, employing 3D printing technology, began fashioning personal protective equipment for front line workers during the initial weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak. Face shields and ear-relief straps are also being created with the 3D printing devices at the facility, distributed to National Guard units, health-care facilities, nursing homes and other outlets.

“All of a sudden, there was this shortage of PPE worldwide, so Maker’s Choice stepped in,” Lucas said. “We came up with some designs for the face shields and printable masks. It kind of grew from there.”

“It’s a team effort,” Andrews said. “Last quarter, I believe, we supplied 2,000-plus PPE. We put these kits together with instructions on how to disinfect them. ... All this stuff we make, we donate; we don’t sell any of it.

“One of the folks who goes to Bible Center Church, Thom Worlledge, got in contact with the Lincoln County EMS, and we were able to supply all of Lincoln County EMS with these ear-relief straps. They’re wearing their masks for 10 to 14 hours a day on some heavy shifts. They’re wearing more professional, medical-grade masks which can pull on your ears a little bit more and the straps help relieve that pressure.”

Lucas added that the center has supplied PPE, requested on Facebook, to beneficiaries in New York, Columbus, Ohio, and other out-of-state areas.

Andrews noted that volunteers are also supplying PPE components through their home computers, delivered to be assembled and distributed through the center.

“We also had people, through the Maker’s Center, making the cloth masks,” Lucas added.

Some fashion improvisation was employed to meet the demand, he said.

“There was a shortage of medical gowns for the doctors. We got a bunch of patient gowns in and we added sleeves to them. That was funny, because we had all of this donated fabric, so you had the blue gowns with My Little Pony bed sheet arms on it. I wondered what a big, burly doctor with a beard like mine would look like wearing My Little Pony on his medical gown,” Lucas said.

Schedules of upcoming classes and more information are posted on the Maker’s Center Facebook page. Information — including volunteer teaching opportunities with the Maker’s Center and how to donate to the program — is also posted at www.biblecenterchurch.com. Email can be directed to themakerscenter@biblecenter church.com.