Although St. James Church in Old Bowie closed due to dwindling membership about two years ago, the historic building is far from empty.
Now, instead of Sunday services and potluck dinners, the church is the setting for children’s plays and arts enrichment classes, all thanks to Emma Hadley, the Charis Center for the Performing Arts, and a little help from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC.
Located on 8th street in Old Bowie, the Charis Center offers a variety of performing arts and visual enrichment programs for children ages 4 through middle school. There is an after-school program for elementary-aged children as well as individual, hour-long, weekly lessons in various visual and performing arts.
The idea for the Charis Center had been in Hadley’s mind for years. She credits her parents with encouraging her interests in the arts. Although Hadley did not know it at the time, as an adult she realized they could not really afford the classes and lessons, but still enrolled her in them.
Her parents’ selflessness served, in part, as her inspiration for the Charis Center.
“If my parents hadn’t realized my passion for theater and music, I would still be behind the couch with a book,” said Hadley. “I wanted to be able to make the performing arts available to anyone who was interested."
She began offering some classes at St. George Episcopal Church in Glenn Dale, where her partner is the minister. When Hadley heard that St. James was facing closure in 2010, she became interested in the space.
Although Hadley knew the Episcopal Diocese would eventually want to sell St. James, she asked if it would be willing to come to an agreement so she could launch the Charis Center in the building.
Hadley proposed to the diocese that Charis pay for utilities and the cosmetic landscaping of the building until it was sold. The diocese agreed.
“We paid $1 to move in, they filled the tank with oil the first year and have never charged for electricity,” Hadley said. “Without that assist, I’m not sure we would have been able to move forward.”
The Charis Center launched in April 2011 and started with five kids in a summer program in June 2011. By the end of that first summer, 20 kids were enrolled, and they have been growing ever since.
Originally, Hadley had intended for the Charis Center to be an arts enrichment center but after that first summer, parents approached her about an after-school program. Because she saw there was a need, she took seven children into an after-school program in the fall of 2011. Now, 18 months later, the program is at full capacity with 18 kids.
Moving forward, Hadley is optimistic about the Charis Center’s future. They are in talks to renew their lease and she plans to maintain the after-school program while promoting enrichment classes for families that don’t have aftercare needs.
“I want the Charis Center to be a place where kids feel safe enough to take risks,” Hadley said.
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