The Club at Cooper opens doors, opportunities to kids

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Warwick Boys & Girls Club executive director Lara D’Antuono said she doesn’t do anything “regular.” To emphasize this, she blew away the traditionally yawn-inducing ribbon cutting in favor of a four-cannon volley of confetti to celebrate the opening of the new “Club at Cooper” facility at 885 Sandy Lane on Tuesday evening.

There was nothing regular about the atmosphere felt all throughout the various spaces of the new Boys & Girls Club – specifically targeted for middle school aged children – prior to the shower of confetti either.

Mayor Scott Avedisian made a silly pose for a green screen photo and marveled with childlike joy at a 3D printer in the midst of making a plastic model, kids bounced from station to station, in many cases leading their parents around rather than vice versa, they shot hoops and gave the GaGa pit a go with new friends. Elsewhere, teens shot pool while others tried on a virtual reality headset.

For D’Antuono, the brightness and excitement felt throughout the night was a kind of joyfulness that was years in the making.

“I cannot believe this day has actually come,” she said. “It’s through the generosity of our donors, our supporters and the city that we’re able to create this place that I do believe is going to change your lives. I believe that you’re going to walk in this door and you’re going to have experiences that you will take with you for the rest of your life, and they will make you a better person.”

The new club boasts a wide range of activities for its pre-teen and teenaged occupants. From a fully-equipped, soundproofed music room synched up with a studio control panel using professional-quality Apple software, to a yoga and workout space, to the large gymnasium with motion capture gaming, to the brand new computers, Promethean Boards and 3D printers throughout the space, the kids who get involved will be able to develop a swath of skills and disciplines.

“For those who don’t understand that dreaming big can actually produce big results, we hope you take a look at everything that is here and understand it was done with the intention of giving our kids incredible starts to incredible futures,” said Avedisian.

The Club at Cooper – named in honor of the Silver Star recipient and Warwick resident Private Lloyd S. Cooper III, who was killed in action during the Italian Campaign of World War II – officially opens Monday, Nov. 13 for 7th and 8th graders. Once 6th graders move into the new Warwick Veterans Junior High next year, they will be welcome to join the club as well.

“By then we’re going to have more things in the building because there are still opportunities,” said D’Antuono.

The opening of the club, too, has been anything but regular. The open house held on Tuesday was originally scheduled to be held a month earlier, but issues getting a sprinkler system installed caused the opening date to be delayed.

The building was formerly federally owned as an Army Reserve headquarters. It was then purchased by the city, which now leases space to the Boys & Girls Club and plans to lease it out in the future for use as a senior center and for other endeavors, such as a headquarters for the city Parks and Recreation Department, and a space for the Police Athletic League (PAL) to meet.

The large space, now a gymnasium, was formerly used by the Army Reserve headquarters for storage, so it did not have stringent fire code requirements. Now that the Boys & Girls Club has moved into the space and is responsible for children and seeks to have events which are categorized as “assemblies” under Rhode Island fire code law, they are required to install fire sprinklers in that space in addition to an alarm system, because the maximum occupancy for the space exceeds 300 people under its current defined use.

When the Warwick City Council was presented with a bid back in September placed by AAA Sprinkler of Cranston for an estimated $15,000, it was rejected due to concerns over missing financial information, including a prevailing wage rate for workers and a more definitive cost estimate – which asked for about $2,000 in wiggle room.

When the bid failed to pass and the opening date was pushed to Nov. 8, D’Antuono sought out an efficiency report on the building from the city fire marshal and the city Building Department. A third party review was also sought by Jensen Hughes engineering consultants, which recommended a variance to limit the number of people allowable in the gymnasium to 300, and any event that drew above that number would mandate a fire watch be put in place.

The club is now effectively in limbo as they await a hearing in before the state Fire Board of Appeals on Dec. 5 to see whether or not they will be granted that fire code variance for occupancy. They were able to open their doors for the open house, and will be able to open on schedule for programming, because they are in the midst of a stay period prior to the hearing.

If the Fire Board of Appeals decides to grant the variance, the Warwick Fire Department would then be responsible for ensuring that the occupancy numbers of the gymnasium area never exceed the allowable 300 people. If they are denied the fire code variance, the Boys & Girls Club will have to once again send out requests for bids to install sprinklers, though they would only need to equip the gymnasium area, not the entire building.

Despite the uncertainty of the future at the moment, major donors – including representatives from the Rhode Island Council on the Arts, the Rhode Island Foundation, Hasbro Hospital, Metlife and Balise Automotive – staff, volunteers, parents and kids took a moment on Tuesday night to rejoice in what is shaping up to be a positive story for Warwick youth.

“It is my hope that when you walk through these doors that you find your passion, and that passion stays with you to change your life for the better forever,” D’Antuono said to the kids before shifting attention to the parents.
“I wanted to create a safe haven in this chaotic world where you know your children are the number one priority; that they’re safe, that they’re engaged and they’re productive. They will leave here better, that is my personal promise to you.”

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