BETHEL — The interior of this former financial institution is not what anyone would have bet on, with children at computers behind the queue, the safe door left open, and bean bag chairs in the lobby.
A little over a year after the closure of the only bank in the city, the building now makes it possible to protect another type of asset. Since January, the former location of the Southern Bank and Trust has served as the new headquarters for the Bethel Youth Activity Center. On weekdays after school, dozens of students walk through these doors, where they are greeted by people willing to invest in their education.
“It’s a beautiful sight for me to see,” said Garrie Moore, the center’s founder, “kids who want to be there. They come running, excited, ready to work and interact with us.
“They are wonderful children,” he said. “A lot of them are very bright. They just need that exposure beyond the classroom.
The center, founded just over a year ago, has shown ingenuity when it comes to converting unconventional spaces into educational environments. Its first location, just across Main Street from the bank, was a closed liquor store.
Program assistant Barbara Highsmith recalls that after it opened in November 2020, people would sometimes come to the door asking if the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) store was back. But she let them know that even though the doors had reopened, the ABCs offered here were not alcoholic but academic.
Retired from the Air Force, Highsmith began volunteering after Moore brought his program from the Center for Science Technology and Leadership Development to Bethel School in 2010.
“We had nothing for the kids,” said the Bethel native who returned to her hometown in 2004. “They had nothing to do. That’s what triggered it; he saw that. The Lord put it on his heart to start something here.
Before becoming founder and CEO of the nonprofit after-school program, Moore spent more than three decades in higher education, including 22 years at Pitt Community College. He retired from East Carolina University as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs in 2006, briefly returning to work as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the City University of New York before returning home. in Greenville.
“I really thought I was retired when I got home,” Moore said with a laugh. “I guess the good Lord had other plans for me.”
Although Moore lives 10 miles from Bethel, the plight of the children living there strikes him. He grew up in a home with no TV or radio, plumbing or running water.
“If you asked me how the hell did I end up in Bethel, I don’t know,” Moore said. “I have always had the feeling of going where the need arises.
“I understand what it’s like to come out of nothing and have something,” he said. “I just want to do whatever I can to help these kids grow and thrive.”
When it opened, the center served students attending Pitt County schools online due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last school year, the distance learning center remained open all day, providing internet access and academic support to students.
Following a summer camp program, Bethel Youth Activity Center began serving after-school students in August 2021. So far, approximately 80 students from grade one through high school are enrolled free of charge. On an average day, more than two dozen get off the school bus and walk into the lobby, where they are served a snack before getting help with homework, followed by recess time.
A video game system, as well as foosball, air hockey, and children’s pool tables are new additions since the center moved to the bank’s former location.
Had he not started coming here, Bethel School sixth grader Trevon Watson said he would take the bus home, where he would watch TV or play video games until until his mother comes home from work. He loves the PlayStation 5 and the basketball goal outside of center, although he knows he has to read before he can enjoy it.
“Every day they have to read,” said office manager Pam Paige-Gorham, who was one of Moore’s colleagues at CCP before coming to work at the center. “If they don’t have homework, they automatically have to choose a book.”
Kelsey Woods, an education student at East Carolina University, organized securities in a single location – the old bank vault. “Welcome to our library,” reads a handwritten sign on the door, which is open for students to enter.
A sophomore and Raleigh native who is studying to be a middle school English and social studies teacher, Woods cherishes the space. She only had a few shelves for books when the center was operating in the store across the street.
“I love having this space and being able to give the kids ownership of it,” she said. “It’s really important for them to feel like it’s something sacred and done for them. They think it’s so cool.
When students find books they’re interested in, they can go read in one of the bank’s offices-turned-classrooms or in the lobby, where bean bag chairs have been placed next to the bank’s old furniture (which Southern Bank donated to the center). The bank has also donated laptops, which the students use along with desktop computers placed along the old teller line.
Chasity Bennett, a seventh-grade student at Bethel, never remembers entering the building when it was a bank, but she’s here almost every day of the week now. The same goes for third-grade student Harper Williams, who launched the after-school program across the street last May.
“My mother saw it and came in. I asked if I could go because it looked fun,” Harper said.
“There are people here to help us with our homework. …I like the way they take care of you.
At each grading period, students bring their report cards to show off their performance at school. Although the center doesn’t require a certain grade point average for students to stay enrolled, Moore likes to see them progress.
“We don’t require you to make all the Aces, but we do require you to do your best,” Moore said. “As long as you are part of this center, we will ensure that you succeed.”
In just over a year, the center is enjoying even more success than Moore had imagined. Since opening in the former ABC store, the location has not only welcomed students into its program, but other members of the community, from Girl Scout troops to older adults looking to improve their computer skills.
Now that the afterschool program has moved to the bank’s former location, Moore plans to keep the store across the street to serve adults with programs that include GED tests and health assessments. Through a partnership with PCC, the center plans to host workforce development programs beginning in March.
“Bethel Youth Activity Center is not only there for the kids, it’s also there for the community,” Moore said. “I think what we do is unique in that we meet the needs of a community.
“I really believe in what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s very hard work, I can tell you. But it is necessary work. Especially for the Bethel community, this is extremely important.