ROSELAND — The old Fleetwood Elementary School has fallen into disrepair, but no measure of water-stained ceilings, crumbling facades or weather-worn steps could diminish the memories community members hold of the historic building.
For Florence Hernandez, “It all started right here.” She stood on the hardwood floor of the school’s auditorium under a high drop tile ceiling on Saturday morning.
She could point to the approximate place where her third grade physical education teacher would have stood, who helped inspire her own drive to become a P.E. teacher and to promote health and well-being for her community.
Saturday marked the Fleetwood Community Center’s first Dicey Cruise-in, a fundraiser featuring a car show, bounce house, live music, and more, with a dice run encouraging motorcyclists to ride the parkway on a route that ended back at the center.
Since its closure in 1995, Fleetwood has stood largely vacant, with its biannual event, the Fleetwood Trail Ride, helping to pay the bills and keep the lights on. Fleetwood Community Center, a nonprofit, is working to raise money to help restore the school for use as a local education center, recreation facility and community destination.
The building is located on Crabtree Falls Highway, about 1.5 miles from Mac’s Country store.
For two decades, the building has stagnated, said Hernandez, but during COVID-19, when everything shut down, the building also closed doors. This is the first large event the community center has held since November 2019.
Newly appointed president of the Fleetwood Community Center board, Hernandez has recruited other community leaders to start a renewed push to save the building by raising money, applying for grants and working to hold events on an almost monthly basis.
The big push for her, she said, came after the building was left empty during the pandemic. A leak started that no one was there to notice, wreaking havoc on the roof that had already seen damage. It was in what used to be her fourth grade classroom.
“My heart broke when I saw that,” she said. Saturday’s fundraiser marked the first phase of a new wave of renovations, a push for the revival of the center, and a hope for restoration of the building and its grounds.
Tabitha Gaines, another board member, said she also attended the school in the 1990s. She could remember playing softball on the ball fields with her parents coaching. She called it “one of the greatest childhood memories.”
Her mother, who also grew up in the community, was one of the first Black students to attend the school. Gaines was the last Black May Day queen at Fleetwood, she said, and her mother was the very first.
“I would love to see that the school gets some renovations done and get brought back to life,” she said. “It’s my childhood and I love it.”
Long-term goals include renovations of the interior and exterior of the building, installation of new bathrooms and locker rooms, renewal of all of the ball fields, and even the possibility to invite local businesses to rent space in the old classrooms.
Jessica Fitzgerald, another board member manning the check-in table for the dice run on Saturday at Mac’s Country Store, said there is nothing else in the immediate area for kids to do. This is an opportunity to provide support, safety and recreation for children in the county.
Between money from a grant the community center recently received from the Nelson County Community Fund and its recent fundraising, Hernandez said backers expect to hit their $30,000 goal to install an all-access 9-hole disc golf course that would meander in and out of the tree line, along the river, as well as bringing back an open basketball court for pickup games.
Both of these goals target one of her biggest priorities: offering greater access to outdoor recreation, a place people in the community can come and use as greenspace, with free, public activities and ballfields.
The Fleetwood service area, which includes Roseland, Tyro, Montebello, Piney River and Arrington, is underserved by places for recreation, she said.
“We would all like to see it thrive again,” she said of the school. “So that the future generation can also see it have some glory days.”
Her daughters were running around the community center on Saturday, making full use of the bounce house, haranguing her for snacks and tumbling through the blow-up obstacle course.
Her 8-year-old, Penelope, said she was having a really fun time playing with her cousins, sister and friends. She agreed the school was very nice, especially since her mom told her that she used to go there.
It’s all about generating community interest, Hernandez said, which can lead to more grant money, more community involvement, and a new future for the building.
“A lot of people made a lot of great memories here,” she said. “We want them to come make more.”
Monica Dean, another board member, said this event represented a “new, renewed” life for the center. She is excited for the next trail ride coming up in September, their first since 2019, but said “all of the other events are what makes this a true community center.”
“These events are the lifeblood,” Dean said.
She said in a close-knit community like Nelson County, this center means a lot to everyone.