A Wonderful Place in the Neighborhood

Author: Jason Kelly ’95

Rclcmuraljohnston The Robinson Center’s signature mural will be replicated at its new facility. Photo by Barbara Johnston

A couple months ago I showed up for a Zoom staff meeting and another editor asked, “Did you change your name to Baptista Minola?” I hadn’t noticed that my little Brady Bunch square identified me as the father finagling to marry off Katherina and Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew.

The mix-up happened because, in real life, I’m the father of a Robinson Shakespeare Company member, the Baptista in question. She changed the Zoom name for the troupe’s performance during the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of shuttering the production when social distancing restrictions scattered the cast for much of the spring rehearsal calendar, director Christy Burgess decided that the show must go online. That’s how they do things at Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center — with conviction and imagination, whatever MacGyvering, actual or virtual, the situation demands.

An “essential” community institution by any definition, the Robinson Center might not have been open during the shutdown, but it never really closed, either. The youth Shakespeare company was just one of several programs that went about their collaborative, instructive, supportive business from afar.

Preschool teacher Samantha Musleh read dozens of books to preschoolers via Facebook Live. Online tutoring, trivia, art projects for children and families, inspirational messages and more emanated from the staff, who approach their jobs not as service providers but as neighbors sharing experiences with friends.

About 600 people a week participate in Robinson Center activities — preschool kids and senior citizens; local students interested in science, entrepreneurship and the arts; new community residents, including refugees, immigrants and graduate students, who need to learn English. One program teaches parents and other caregivers the importance of talking to their babies. Another instructs children how to think and talk through problems rather than reacting with anger and violence. The staff administers outreach programs in South Bend schools.

A lot happens there. Too much, truth be told, for the building that the center has occupied since it opened in 2001 as a community-engagement program in the Northeast Neighborhood that borders the campus. In June the Robinson Center staff moved across the road to a new facility, built as part of the extended Eddy Street Commons development south of campus. They’re eager for the go-ahead to open the doors to the community.

The 12,600-square-foot new building almost doubles the space in their long-­outgrown, windowless retrofitted grocery store. For all it lacked in breathing room and creature comforts, though, the old place inspired genuine fondness. People felt so at home that the inconveniences never really registered as problems (at least if you didn’t work there). Like the fact that the “playground” was just part of the parking lot, blocked off with orange cones when the kids were outside.

They’ll have a dedicated place to play now, fenced off from cars, a green space instead of cracked asphalt. Among the other welcome amenities in the new building will be a black box theater, a makerspace for hands-on exploration with tools and technology, a state-of-the-art early childhood classroom.

Robinson Center manager Jennifer Knapp Beudert lists the upgrades in no particular order. New luxuries, large and small, keep springing to mind. There’s the natural light the big windows will provide. And the industrial kitchen where they’ll finally be able to cook a lasagna in less than four hours and prepare all the food they serve for events and programs.

As she enthuses about the new building, though, Knapp Beudert betrays a hint of nostalgia for the place she’s vacating. Actually, nostalgia’s not the right word. More like determination to transfer the welcoming, cooperative atmosphere as faithfully as the eclectic, colorful murals that adorned the outside of the old building and, by popular demand, will be replicated on the new façade.

“It might look a little spiffier,” Knapp Beudert says of the brand-new Robinson Community Learning Center, but the spirit, like the splash of colors on the exterior walls, will remain the same.

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.