After years of neglect, an abandoned old church in the Lower Fairview section of Altoona is taking on signs of activity.
Known to members of Pleasant Valley Assembly of God as the 11th Street Project, the 15,000-square- foot building at 1533 11th St. is beginning to be used to serve the community.
Two months ago, a free clothing and food distribution center opened, and a summer reading program for children ended this week. Spiritual needs will be addressed at the facility when Hope Community Church opens its doors this fall.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) John Gray, outreach pastor at Pleasant Valley Assembly of God, paints a hallway at the 11th Street Project. He and contractor Randy Bracken are overseeing construction work at the site. Gray will serve as pastor of Hope Community Church.
For the past three years, members of Pleasant Valley Assembly have been donating thousands of dollars and countless hours of labor to transform what had been a hangout for drug addicts and the homeless into a faith-based community center.
Senior Pastor Jim Balzano said when the church took on the project, the building contained old furnishing and clutter, including drug paraphernalia. Costs to renovate it were estimated at $1.3 million.
"At that time, we did not know where the money was going to come from," he said.
The congregation donated more than $500,000 with other churches, businesses, organization and the state and federal government also making contributions.
The nonchurch donations are funneled into the Nehemiah Project, a more expansive nonprofit that covers the neighborhood.
"It's an awesome blessing to be part of this project," Balzano said. "It is God's heart. It's God's desire to bless the community. He invites us to join him, and we have been blessed to be part of it."
Although work continues in the main hall or sanctuary, Chris Heller, children's pastor at Pleasant Valley Assembly of God, was able to use occupancy ready, general purpose rooms for the annual reading program previously held at the church, 801 Pleasant Valley Blvd.
"We wanted to be here to give the building some life," Heller said.
News about the reading sessions for preschoolers to fifth-graders spread by word of mouth, and Heller said more neighborhood children attended each week.
An after-school program is to open in October.
Heller said the summer reading program helped to introduce the community to the new center.
"The more comfortable people feel with us, the more apt they are to use the facility," she said.
Pleasant Valley Assembly has been working with Wright Elementary School to determine how workers can support the educational needs of the children, she said. For the afterschool program, Apple computers, like the ones students use at Wright, were purchased through a grant from Operation Our Town. Using the same type of computers enables the students to concentrate on learning without also having to navigate a different system.
Adults as well as children can take advantage of another service at the site. Food, clothing and households goods are available for free at The Father's House on the 16th Avenue side of the building.
Previously an outreach of Pleasant Valley Assembly of God on the 2300 block of Beale Avenue, Director Dick Weber said the response to the new location has been good.
"We have lots of customers and donated items, a good supply of anything you need," he said. "The input of clothing has been excellent and targets needs for summer or winter. The Lord has just poured donations on us."
Right now, summer shorts, tops and other light apparel fill the racks with warm clothing being stored until fall.
Items to entertain youths also are on the shelves.
"Lots of kids come in. Anything they need, they are welcomed to have," he said. He said the inline skates and skateboards go fast. "They know where we are at," he chuckled.
For parents with young children, a kids' corral allows them to play while mom or dad shop.
"It's made from the old altar," Weber said.
Although hours are limited, a diversity in times allows people to shop at their convenience.
Hours are 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, noon to 2 p.m. Thursday and 9:15 a.m. to noon Saturday. The hours eventually will be expanded, Weber said.
Excitement is building for the completion of the sanctuary.
"Every week someone asks me when is the church going to open," John Gray, outreach pastor at Pleasant Valley Assembly of God, said. He will become pastor at Hope Community when it opens at 7 p.m. Nov. 7.
Worship will continue on Saturdays in a relaxed atmosphere with people welcome to wear jeans and T-shirts, he said.
A praise band will lead worship and spiritual messages will be presented through drama, video and illustrations. Sermons will focus on life applicable issues, Gray said.
The mid-autumn date was chosen for the opening because it marks the end of a two-year capital campaign by Pleasant Valley Assembly to turn the abandoned church into a community center and worship facility.
Originally a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in the early 1900s, it also was the home of Prince of Peace Church for a time.
The structure was condemned by city code enforcement, but contractors from the church determined that the building was sound. Pleasant Valley Assembly purchased it from Prince of Peace for $1.
"For so long this building set condemned," Gray said. "People thought the church was condemned. No function. No place to get anything."
"But God hasn't left the community. God hasn't left the building. He is still there and he desires to have a relationship with everybody," Gray said.