If home is truly where the heart is, there were plenty of broken hearts this week at The Center with the announcement from the Lycoming County Housing Authority that the tenants must vacate the premises by month's end.
Generations of people who grew up at the facility at 600 Campbell St., or remember their childhoods when a community center was on Walnut Street and later on Park Avenue, expressed heartache at the possible loss of their favorite destination.
A few of them who gathered for the final weeks of Bingo recently talked about how much they would miss seeing children in after-school programs, watching boys skirt around the court in a pickup game of basketball and more importantly - see hungry families served emergency food supplies.
They were told by the authority that they have until Dec. 1 to leave the premises, according to John M. Kiernan, a member of the Campbell Street Family, Youth and Community Center Association Inc. board.
Kiernan said he was willing to facilitate discussions between The Center and the authority.
Many who grew up learning, playing, cooking and eating at the facility have promised they won't go with ease and want to have a say before the doors shut.
"This is not only my second home, it was our school," said Henry Mitchell, son of the late P.D. Mitchell, director from 1943 through 1979.
"It's where we learned how to speak and dress properly," he said. "We learned how to cook, sew and become men and women because we were taught by adult role models who planted the seeds in our heads and hearts."
To fully grasp the impact of the closing, Mitchell recalled his father's role on his life and the lives of others who walked through the community center's doors.
"He was an orphan," Mitchell said. "Dad once told me he didn't want folks to feel the kind of rejection he did."
Born in 1909, P.D. Mitchell grew up in Portsmouth, Va. He became a teacher and athletic coach, marrying a woman from North Carolina and moving deeper into the segregated South, Mitchell said.
One day, the Ku Klux Klan arrived at their door, upset about the black in the neighborhood who had permitted a white boy to run beside him, encouraging the boy to run as fast as he could. The boy turned out to be the local sheriff's son.
"The Klan told my dad and mother and my older brother, P.D. Mitchell Jr., that they had a week to leave or they'd be killed," Mitchell said.
When his father saw a job listing for a director of a community center in Williamsport, he leapt at the opportunity, landing the job and moving to central Pennsylvania, where he taught sociology at Lycoming College and became entrenched in the betterment of the community, through directing the Peter Herdic project and mentoring youth.
"Dad was gone from 8:30 in the morning to 10 at night, so we hardly spoke to him," Mitchell said.
Because of a parentless upbringing, Mitchell said his father invited children to the family home to eat dinner. "He'd have us get up from the table," Henry Mitchell said. "He'd say, 'These kids don't have a home,'" Mitchell said.
When a woman in Mitchell's neighborhood told him to keep off her property when the boy walked to school, the young Mitchell ran home to his father who told him to return the anger with acts of kindness and responsibility. Rather than cross the street, he said carry a broom or shovel on his walk. Whenever it snowed, he was instructed to clear off the sidewalk and her driveway, too.
"I did that for two years," Mitchell said. One day the woman arrived at their door. In her hand was a warm apple pie.
"She was nice to us from then on," Mitchell said. "It's a lesson I tried to teach that my father taught me that has stuck with me ... 'never show them your anger,' he would say. 'It takes two to fight.' "
They were among the many lessons P.D. Mitchell planted in young minds carried through the years.
"I loved being a Center brat," he said.
Earlier this week, after learning of the eviction notice, senior citizens at a Bingo game at The Center broke down in tears at the thought of losing their home away from home.
Many of their memories are of the facility in the days leading up to and after the Civil Rights movement.
"I remember all of the things we did in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King," said Rebecca Baity, who attended The Center when it was the Bethune-Douglass Center.
Her brother-in-law, Bob "Goose" Baity, learned to play basketball on its court, playing for semi-professional teams such as the Billies, a city-based basketball team scoring points in the Eastern Professional League.
For Vivian Belle, memories are bittersweet. Growing up, she attended the facility when it was on Walnut Street.
Thinking back to her youth, she said black children and adults could not use the YWCA pool or locker rooms.
"We could only go into the gym," she said. That's why the place was so important, she said.
For Velna Grimes, board vice president, a commitment to excellence in education of young people - who otherwise might not have enough guidance - was among the most impressionable of her memories.
The P.D. Mitchell Scholarship, established for graduates of Williamsport Area High School, was possible because of contributions and monetary donations, she said.
Baity recalled how proud she was when many students were awarded the scholarships at ceremonies inside the community room and eventually at gatherings at the Genetti Hotel.
The Center hosted its share of wedding receptions, baby showers, graduation parties, homecoming reunions and special events, she said.
Clara Whaley said the after-school program is what helped to propel her niece, Alisha Coffey, to pursue a college degree.
Whaley recalled the oratory contests, where one year the winner of the speech competition traveled to a state contest in Pittsburgh.
Sam Belle, president of the facility's board of directors, once prided himself as quite the basketball player.
Today, Belle is coach of the track and field for the high school team. Back then, he said he rolled up a rag tightly into a ball and tossed it into a wastepaper can on top of a table. That was the basketball court when the facility was on Park Avenue, he said. "You couldn't bounce it, but you just tossed it around and that's how we learned how to play ball."
Belle said he recently played Santa Claus for holidays. "I was a happy Santa," he said, laughing.
Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said as a boy he learned a lot from programs when the building was on Park Avenue. When asked if he would get involved in the loss of a decades-old facility, Campana said he would remain out of the decision-making.
But he added the philosophy and contributions from generations of those who attended and made these invaluable programs work, will forever serve as a testament to the city's caring community as it strived for cultural diversity.
"I believe the issue is between the authority and the Center board," Campana said. "I respect the authority's leadership and believe whoever owns the building will continue to serve all of the citizens."
While the facility's future remains up in the air, the Rev. John Manno, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Montoursville and a long-time advocate for the less fortunate in the Campbell Street neighborhood, said what is stuck in his mind is the situation at hand.
Manno said everyone's anger must be tempered before anyone jumps to conclusions.
"I believe MeriLyn Severson is a sincere person," Manno said, saying his understanding is the cost of maintenance and upkeep of the structure is behind the housing authority's decision to order out the Campbell Street Association so they can sell the building. Severson is executive director of the housing authority.
"They are restricted by their budgets, too," he said. "I'm hoping and praying for an extension of the deadline before they have to leave the building."
Then he added: "That's a rush."