Published January 27. 2014 4:00AM
Norwich - The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center stopped hosting youth programs about two years ago, and in December the West Side center went dark and cold, as funding ran dry to keep even its small food pantry operation going.
But its sole active board member, M. Garfield Rucker, keeps a close eye on the building at 21 Fairmount St., opening the locked mailbox - which contains mostly overdue bills - and checking the building's condition.
One day in early December, Rucker's disappointment and frustration at the center's problems was compounded when he discovered the front office window broken and the narrow window in the interior office door smashed. Upstairs, vandals had used a golf club to tear down sagging ceiling tiles and smash the dry wall that encased a water tank.
Rucker called police and was surprised a half hour later when police called back to say they had caught the several young boys who had broken into the center. Rucker quickly returned to the building to face six or eight boys, about 10 to 12 years old.
"Some of them I knew!" Rucker said last week, still upset that youths who had enjoyed King center programs and events would trash the place.
He got his second shock when an officer asked if he wanted to press charges. He couldn't do it.
"Yes, they did damage, but how much more damage would I be doing to have them arrested?" Rucker said.
The King Center was established in 1967 and has had a rocky road over the years, with funding difficulties and political infighting intertwined with periods of good times, with dozens of youths crowded into the main hall for dances, movie nights and parties. The center hosted after-school tutoring classes in math and classes for high school dropouts.
With grant money, the center offered bus trips to Broadway plays in New York City - for some kids, it was their first venture outside Connecticut, Rucker said. He still smiles at the memory of Norwich black youths in fear and awe at their first look at the urban street scenes of Harlem.
But money woes, lack of volunteers and the inability to hire a director/grants writer doomed the center, Rucker said. He tried to attract a volunteer grant writer by offering a 10 percent fee on any successful applications, but no one was interested, he said.
Utility bills fell $600 to $700 in arrears, but Norwich Public Utilities still hesitated to turn off the power. Finally, late last fall, Rucker asked the city owned utility to shut off the lights.
"NPU, I've got to give them praise," Rucker said. "We were $600 in the hole. I told them I couldn't keep it going."
Rucker told families who had used the food pantry to come and get the last remaining items as he locked up the center and turned off the lights. He used a surprise $5,000 grant from The William W. Backus Hospital to pay the utility bill and put the rest of the money in the bank for the future.
Cold and vacant, the center's interior reflects its troubles. The office, with a tray of paper clips, phone, paper and pens in place, looks like it closed yesterday - but for the shattered glass and strewn supplies from the break-in.
In the main hall, the pool table is ready for use. A smashed guitar lies on the floor, but the storage cabinets still house puzzles, games and arts and crafts supplies. Ceiling tiles with old leaks have sagged and crashed to the floor in spots. Upstairs in the computer room, vandals smashed the wall, pulled down ceiling tiles and damaged some computers still at their stations.
Right now, Rucker is hoping for a big lottery win to save the center.
"Yes, I play the lottery," he said. "If I win the big one, the first thing I would do is build a brand new center, with everything we need."
The Rev. Barbara White, pastor of the Evans Memorial AME Zion Church and a supporter of the King center, said she prays for a solution by spring that could reopen the center. White has been a board member for the past several years, and Evans Memorial had held fundraisers and donated money to the center in the past.
"Brother Rucker has taken money out of his pocket, and I've taken money out of my pocket and the church has donated a few thousand dollars, but it doesn't last," she said.
White said the center needs sustained funding and active board members.
"I'm just sorry to see that it's closed right now, and we're not able to use it at all," White said. "Maybe in the spring we can start to use it again. It's a landmark there. We want to try to keep it if we can. We're going to strive to do what we can."