West Hills Community Brings Back the Shack

Once abandoned, a community center springs to life through the work of neighborhood volunteers.

Neighbors came together for an Easter celebration and cookout at The Shack. Photo courtesy of New Haven Independent.

Sitting abandoned for nearly two decades, the community center affectionately known as the “Shack” is once again a haven for young people and families in New Haven’s West Hills neighborhood. The reopening is the result of neighbors of all ages coming together to fundraise and volunteer their time to renovate and staff the center.

Youth and families gather in the community room. Photo courtesy of 333 Valley Street Center.

“It is a beautiful success,” said West Hills Alder Honda Smith, who led organizing efforts to reopen the center and is now a daily presence as a volunteer. “The game room is up and running and kids are utilizing the space tremendously. We have over 500 residents come through a month.”

Youth gather for a regular chess club. Photo courtesy of 333 Valley Street Center.

The community-driven project began with neighborhood meetings and a fundraising campaign for the nonprofit created to run the Shack - 333 Valley Street Center, An Intergenerational Organization. The Community Foundation provided the project’s first grant, $30,000 made available from Stepping Forward, the $26 Million initiative to advance equity and address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of New Haven committed $135,000 to upgrading the building’s HVAC system and the state of Connecticut contributed a $550,000 grant to build a music production and recording studio in an abandoned storage room.

“The Community Foundation was an amazing blessing for us,” Smith said.

"$550K State Grant For The Shack OK’d"

Honda Smith, right, at the 2021 Winter Wonderland Christmas gift giveaway hosted at the Shack. Photo courtesy of New Haven Independent

Adult volunteers like Smith staff the center so it can remain open on a daily basis.

“Our goal is to bring community together where the old understands the youth and the youth understands and respect the old,” Smith said.

Since opening, the center has been a hub of neighborhood activities and events. It hosted Fathers and Sons Day to help paint the interior. It began a reading program, hosts a chess club and plans to hold a music festival. Seasonal events include an Easter Egg Hunt and cookout, “trunk or treat” during Halloween and a Christmas gift giveaway and celebration. During the pandemic, the Shack has been a distribution site for test kits and masks.

Our goal is to bring community together, where the old understands the youth and the youth understands and respect the old.

Honda Smith / Alder and Community Leader

Most importantly, Smith said, the Shack gives young people a safe place to hang out, play games and even sleep. Some of the kids frequenting the Shack, Smith noted, don't have stable homes, and the Shack is a place where they can get needed rest.

“We feed these kids. It has become a safe haven for them,” said Smith.