Jersey Shore Community Center Plans 40th Anniversary Celebrations

HNP Communications In the Headlines

BRANT BEACH, N.J. — St. Francis of Assisi Community Center, a ministry of St. Francis of Assisi Church on Long Beach Island on the Jersey shore, is preparing for its 40th anniversary this summer. The celebration begins April 29 with Sunday brunch.

Anniversary plans are still in the making, but some initial events include:
· Kick-off Sunday brunch, April 29, in the gym
· LBIsland Luau, July 14, at the tennis courts
· 40th Anniversary Gala, Sept. 28, at the Sea Shell Club in Beach Haven

The parish’s community center is a true example of the Franciscan spirit, offering services and outreach where needed most in the community. It stands behind a “cultural statement” that reads: “The St. Francis Center recognizes a culturally diverse community and makes a commitment to the principles of multiculturalism as a means of understanding, accepting, valuing and supporting cultural diversity.”

In a nutshell, the center welcomes people of all colors, creeds and cultures and is “inclusive of all members of the community.” In addition to its facility, boasting three pools, gym and tennis courts, programs for families and those at risk are provided.

Summer is an especially appropriate time for an anniversary, since the parish community comprises four churches, three of which are only open in the summer, that serve the burgeoning tourist population traveling to these beach towns each year.

A Diverse Parish
St. Francis Parish, in Long Beach Township, remains open all year. Stephen Kluge, OFM, is pastor, and the friars serving are Kevin Daly, OFM, and James Scullion, OFM. The other churches are St. Thomas Aquinas, Beach Haven; St. Thomas of Villanova, Surf City; and St. Clare Church, Loveladies.

The center opened in July 1972 and has always been a vibrant part of the community, according to Andrew Reitz, OFM, of New York City, who was pastor of St. Francis when the center was built and expanded. The idea for St. Francis Community Center began in 1968 when the friars saw a need for larger facilities so parishioners could meet socially and for recreation.

In keeping with the Franciscan tradition of reaching out to the community, the idea for the center quickly expanded beyond the church as a facility for the entire area.

Andrew recalled: “There was a team ministry on Long Beach Island when I joined in 1971. We each had an area of responsibility. Thaddeus Sapio, OFM, and Owen McNally, OFM, had been there since 1965. Though the center was first built for space for religious education classes, there was a gym for youth sports programs and meeting space for parish groups. There was not much going on during the winter, and the parish saw this as an opportunity to provide activities for the community.”

The town and city soon recognized the impact that the center could have on people’s lives, and asked if the parish could run a government-funded senior citizen program.

“This happened and our kitchen put out 2,000 meals a day for our program and for other nutrition programs in the county, as well as Meals on Wheels,” said Andrew. That was just the beginning.

Today, the 120-person staff and 1,200 volunteers operate a preschool, senior center, aquatic center, counseling center offering grief programs and therapy, family support services, youth program, educational support services, such as ESL and GED courses, recreation program, volunteer program and many special events. From 2010 to 2011, these services reached more than 167,000 individuals.

“The 40th Anniversary of the St. Francis Center is a testament to the friars and the community leaders who envisioned a way to meet the temporal needs of all the people of the surrounding community,” said Stephen. “The St. Francis Center continues to be — will always be — a place where all are welcome.”

A Special Facility
The facility, directed since 2009 by Connie Becraft, who reports to Stephen, includes a regulation-size gymnasium, competition-sized indoor pool, two heated outdoor pools and two tennis courts. The center is open seven days a week — weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6, 8 or 9 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Basic family memberships are as affordable as $100 a year, with additional fees for the aquatics and other programs.

Many self-help and 12-step groups meet here, and other services like travel clubs are also offered. The center is often the venue for craft shows and art sales, making for an always busy place.

Senior services were among the first to be offered at the center, with approximately 50 area residents attending the official opening in March 1973. The program began small, primarily with a lunch program and social activities. Services have grown to include outreach health screenings, case management services, transportation, home-delivered meals, community education programs, volunteer opportunities, education and recreation.

The Recreation Department was the next to grow, with the addition of tennis courts, saunas, weight room and two outdoor pools. Exercise and dance, martial arts, and craft classes were added.

In 1977, the Counseling Services opened, followed by the Youth Office and the welcoming of self-help groups.

Since 1972, the building has undergone three additions. In 2003, the Aquatic Center opened, and reconstruction of the outdoor pool facility was completed in May 2005.

— Wendy Healy, a freelance writer based in Connecticut, is the author of Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal After 9/11.