Cambria City’s former St. Columba School served as a home away from home for generations of children in its heyday.
It will again sometime next year, Alternative Community Resource Director Frank Janakovic said.
The school and its tiny desks are long gone, but work crews were busy Wednesday turning the Chestnut Street site into a colorful and interactive indoor and outdoor playground.
When complete, likely in the spring, it will welcome both ACRP program youth and the public with play equipment outside and attractions like a two-level tree house, workshop and even make-believe grocery store inside the old school.
“Just about anything you can imagine wanting as a kid – it’ll be here,” ACRP board member Mary Jo Berardone said.
Behind her, dozens of Home Depot workers were busy building it all, installing supports for the tree house and other play areas inside the nearly 5,000-square-foot space once home to classrooms.
Inflatable “bounce houses,” a climbing wall and a beach with beans for sand will also be added, Janakovic said.
“It’s all going to have a jungle theme. But we’re going to let the kids name it,” he said.
The Johnstown nonprofit operates 26 programs throughout the Bedford, Cambria and Somerset region. More than half of the 5,000 people it served last year were children – a key reason behind the project, Janakovic said.
“This is something we wanted to do for years,” he added.
ACRP staff have spent part of the past two winters chipping away at the work, replacing the heating and air conditioning system and electrical wiring with assistance from the county work crew.
The nonprofit acquired the site two years ago, Janakovic said.
It’s years removed from its Catholic schoolhouse days.
The building itself was built as a church in 1888 – the year the St. Columba Parish was founded, Tribune-Democrat archives show. In the decades that followed, it became a school, receiving extensive renovations in 1959.
Janakovic said the site’s overhaul and playground project would likely have cost $250,000 if it weren’t for in-kind help from Home Depot and the county work crews. Instead, it will be close to $100,000, he said.
Home Depot alone stepped up big, Janakovic said, pointing out the retailer’s group of 60 workers busy working around him.
The group represented staff and volunteers from 18 stores in the region, Janakovic said.
“We’d never be able to get this much done without them,” Berardone said.
Home Depot also donated construction supplies and appliances, Janakovic said. The company’s foundation, as well as the Ronald McDonald House Charities and Lee Foundation, provided grants, he added.
Janakovic said he plans to reach out to local high schools to paint murals on the school’s new interior walls.
If all goes well, an outdoor “water spray” sprinkler park and a rec room for older youth will be added in the years ahead, he said.
The facility will be geared for ACRP Program youth, many of whom are diagnosed with mental or behavioral health issues, but Janakovic said it also will be available to the public for a not-yet-set “nominal” admission.
“We’re going to have to charge something to sustain it,” he said.
Daily, monthly and yearly passes also likely will be offered.
“But we’ll have half-price nights and promotions,” he said.
Follow Tribune-Democrat reporter David Hurst on Twitter @tddavidhurst for a look back at the old St. Columba school.