SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI – A building that once served to educate South Kingstown’s youth is now serving the community in a different way, providing food, offering assistance — and most importantly, giving hope.
The building at 22 Kersey Road, which originally housed Peace Dale Grammar School in the early 1900s, now houses the new headquarters of the Jonnycake Center for Hope, which held a center reopening ceremony on Saturday.
Longtime supporters, donors, volunteers and members of the center, as well as past and present staff, expressed their astonishment as they toured the new facility.
“It’s going to help a lot of people,” said Katherine Pates, a Peace Dale resident and former Jonnycake Center employee. Pates retired after 16 years at the center but is a regular visitor. She had the honor of cutting a ribbon on the front steps of the center’s entrance to officially mark the completion of renovations at the site.
Pates was joined by her daughter Sandra – the coordinator of the Jonnycake thrift store – and her granddaughter Katherine Pates.
All three generations are closely linked to the center.
“Jonnycake has been in my life my entire life,” Sandra said. “First with my grandmother, then my mother started working there. I’ve worked there for four years now. And my daughter works in the pantry. It has helped our family enormously – at Christmas or when the rent is tight. It helped us a lot.”
Founded in 1974, the nonprofit Jonnycake Center for Hope provides basic needs and resources to 2,000 community members in South Kingstown, Narragansett, Jamestown and Block Island.
The name comes from jonnycake – the homemade cornmeal bread that has been a staple of the diet in South County and elsewhere since colonial times.
“We are excited to return this local landmark to the community,” said Kate Brewster, CEO of the Jonnycake Center for Hope. “Not only does this building provide a safe, functional space for service delivery, it sends a strong message to our struggling neighbors that we care and invest in them.”
The center, through its board of directors and a capital campaigns committee, raised more than $1.8 million for the purchase and renovation of the building, which took almost three years from purchase to completion.
Notable donors include the Centerville Bank Charitable Foundation, the Champlin Foundation, Cathy Ryan and former CVS CEO Tom Ryan, and Laurie Taricani and former WJAR investigative reporter, the late Jim Taricani.
An engraved glass plaque listing donors hangs on a wall in the reception area of the new center.
“Despite the pandemic, our team came together and raised the funds necessary to complete the project,” said CEO Jane Hayward. “The community couldn’t have been more supportive and we couldn’t be more grateful.”
The center’s thrift store remains at 1231 Kingstown Road at the roundabout.
Upon entering the former school, visitors are greeted by a spacious lobby and a waiting area with shelves full of children’s books like The Cat in the Hat and board games. Visitors unable to use the school’s old stairs can take the new elevator to the second floor.
On the ground floor is a spacious and bright Jonnycake Market — the center’s pantry — stocked with canned goods, coffee, rice, chilled staples like eggs, and fresh produce for those who regularly use the center as a lifeline. There are several green shopping trolleys or hand baskets near the entrance for pantry shoppers. The space is designed so that a shopping cart can easily be pushed around, for example in a grocery store.
The school’s old chalkboards are part of the pantry and display handwritten chalk thanks from patrons and visitors.
According to the center, the market distributes groceries to up to 800 shoppers each month. Social service staff are co-located with the pantry, allowing for regular interactions and timely assistance with hundreds of visitors each month.
Adjacent to the pantry is a large staging area for processing food deliveries. Metal shelves, steel refrigerators, sinks and sorting tables prepare the pantry workers.
Nearby are administrative offices where staff run day-to-day operations, as well as spaces for community outreach programs and other member services.
Additional offices are located on the second floor, which is also home to H. Winfield and Phyllis Tucker’s large and inviting common room and its open demonstration kitchen. The area also features more of the old plaques as well as a six burner gas range on an island and a new refrigerator, microwave and dishwasher.
The kitchen and common room provide space for expanding programs and initiatives, as well as for workshops and group meetings.
In a hallway outside the common room, the center has kept a wood and metal student desk that would have been used by the children when the school opened.
Deslandes Construction, the contractor who carried out the renovations, preserved many of the building’s historic features such as the writing desk, blackboards, original woodwork on the floor and walls, and the sweeping staircase.
The exterior has also been extensively renovated with new siding, repainted paneling and doors, a paved car park, a rear entrance access ramp and landscaping improvements.
President Jim Deslandes said his company is honored to work on the renovation.
“The positive and collaborative attitude of the team made work a pleasure every day,” he said. “The services provided by Jonnycake are admirable – we are proud to be part of their community and wish them continued success in their mission.”
During its first week of operation in early April, the center launched a healthy cooking class for middle school students and will offer more after-school programs and cooking classes in the coming weeks.
There are also discussions about a teen drop-in program this summer, disease management initiatives, wellness classes and a youth training program. The center will launch a credit-building pilot program this month in partnership with Westerly Community Credit Union.
Brewster said last summer the center surveyed members to better understand their goals for themselves and their families.
“We work with our partners and other interested parties to help our members achieve their goals in healthier eating, physical fitness, access to affordable housing, child enrichment and economic empowerment tools,” Brewster said. “Having a welcoming, appropriate space to connect our members with resources is a game changer. The community is showing up in ways we couldn’t have imagined.”