Bills force J.O.N.A.H. Center to close its doors
After decades of providing a meeting place for community and advocacy groups, the J.O.N.A.H. (Join Our Neighborhood and Help) Center, located at 830 Oakland Beach Ave., has been locked up and is closing its doors for good.
“It's really with a heavy heart that I have to close the building because I have a lot of memories there,” said Donna Travis, Ward 6 City Councilor and vice president of J.O.N.A.H. Inc.
Travis said the reason for closing the center is purely financial. Although the building is technically owned by two Warwick Churches – the First Congregational Church of Warwick and St. Rita’s Roman Catholic Church – which lease the property to the city for $1, who then in turn lease the property to J.O.N.A.H. Inc. for another $1, the board of the J.O.N.A.H. is responsible for paying the utility and insurance bills that keep the building operational.
“We can’t afford the building anymore,” Travis said. “Anytime we do a fundraiser it's going to National Grid. It just wipes out all our money. That's not what we're about.”
Travis said that the board for J.O.N.A.H. will continue to meet monthly at the Warwick Public Library, and that they can figure out places to rent for their fundraising activities, some of which go towards scholarship funds for Warwick students.
“J.O.N.A.H. Inc. is very much alive,” she said. We're going to keep going, service the scholarships and fund the holiday toy baskets and food program...We can actually continue to work on projects and help the community, because that's what J.O.N.A.H. is all about.”
“What's happened is they've turned around and said if we're going to do $1,100 in fundraising, we want to put it into the scholarship fund and not into paying for gas and electric,” echoed Mayor Scott Avedisian, who said once he has the keys back from J.O.N.A.H. he will be able to work out the future of the building with the two churches.
The decision by J.O.N.A.H. to break the lease stirred some bad feelings with the Warwick Veterans Service Organization (WVSO), an NGO collaboration of the Warwick chapter of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and the Rhode Island Military Organization that provides free referral services to active duty and retired armed services members, which had conducted its services and meetings at the center.
As a result of the center closing, the WVSO now has to find a new place to conduct its volunteering efforts.
“This is definitely not political,” Travis said, in response to rumors that had circulated that the WVSO had been “thrown out” of the center. “In no way were we throwing anybody out. How can we be throwing someone out when we're all leaving?”
Travis said that as many as five members of the J.O.N.A.H. board became frustrated to the point over a number of years due to various disagreements with the WVSO, including leaving lights and heat on for a prolonged period of time with exterior doors open. Travis also mentioned one instance where she couldn’t open the door to the WVSO portion of the building to allow a firefighter to conduct a fire inspection because she was not privy to a key for their portion.
Above all, however, Travis said frustrations mounted over the years because the veterans group was not chipping in financially despite utilizing the building as much, and in some cases more, than other tenants of the center.
“If you're not helping to pay the bill you don't seem to care, and that put a lot of strain on my board because they were getting frustrated and didn't want to have any arguments,” Travis said, adding that the WVSO had paid about $600 a couple years ago, but that was all.
“They didn't rack up costs so much but they didn't really help pay for the costs either,” said Beverlee Sturdahl, who has been involved with J.O.N.A.H. Inc. for over 30 years, currently as vice president and formerly the president for 13 years.
Timothy Howe, Ward 3 Councilman and president of the Rhode Island Military Organization, said that J.O.N.A.H. closing is the end of what was a sometimes frigid relationship with the J.O.N.A.H. Inc. board, and that they were unaware that the center would be closing until members of the Rhode Island DAV showed up for a Saturday meeting to find that the locks had been changed.
Howe said that the WVSO never received grant money from the city, had no revenue streams and never charged for its services, which included hooking veterans up with resources to find low-income housing and get VA healthcare. Howe said that the WVSO painted and rehabbed large portions of the dilapidating center when they moved in during 2013, which they did so at the request of Avedisian and the city. He said that any time they could assist the J.O.N.A.H. board at its fundraising events, they were more than happy to lend a hand.
Still, despite being disappointed and feeling as though the end was “unceremonious,” Howe said he isn’t looking to hold grudges or dwell in the past and that, although he is not ready to disclose them yet, there were already a few prospective locations on his radar already to be the new home of the WVSO.
“What’s done is done,” he said. “We’ve kept our promise to the mayor and to the city and its veterans. We’ve maintained our services through thick and thin and we’re going to continue to deliver on that mission.”
Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who helped found the WVSO, said that it was unfortunate that J.O.N.A.H. was closing, she did not think that there were any hard feelings between the sides.
“You know how rumors have a capability of growing to ridiculous proportions,” she said.
Avedisian said that he was working with state Veterans Affairs Director Kasim Yarn trying to find a new home for the veterans organization.
Other tenants of the J.O.N.A.H. Center included an arts group called Pava and the Oakland Beach Association, which will also have to find new places to meet and organize.
“I've been with JONAH back when it was flourishing and now it's time to leave that building behind,” said Sturdahl.