The Renaissance Family Center in Windham is a Swiss army knife of community service

Marian Phillips, librarian with the Portage County District Library, with Paint ’n Sip participants she guided through a recent fundraiser at the Renaissance Family Center.

Windham’s Renaissance Family Center just might be the best-kept secret in northern Portage County.

Located at 9005 Wilverne Dr., RFC offers multiple programs for people of all ages. All programs are free, and all of them are meant to fulfill specific needs in people’s lives.

Need food or clothing? Check. Books or household items? Check. Counseling, exercise or a GED? Check, check, check.

“People don’t know about it,” RFC Executive Director Betty Gray said. “They know the building because it used to be East Elementary [School], and they know we’re there, but they don’t know the scope of what is done there.”

Scope may be an understatement.

Beginning this month, RFC will offer open gym Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. A supervisor will be present, so all parents and guardians of minors need to do is complete a liability waiver, available in RFC’s main office. The gym features a regulation-sized basketball court with four baskets.

During RFC regular hours (10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays), the gym is also open for pickup games or league practices.

There is more than enough room for a weight and aerobic exercise room and for people to get their steps in. Seven times around the former school building’s hallways equals a mile, Gray said. Senior citizens enjoy playing card games from noon until whenever Thursdays, and Gray welcomes suggestions for additional fellowship activities.

People in need of just about anything for their home may browse RFC’s Second Blessings Thrift Shoppe, which offers donated items at reduced prices. All proceeds help keep RFC’s doors open. Second Blessings is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and, like everything else at the center, is staffed by volunteers.

The thrift shop includes two overflow rooms filled with items that may be more worn than those offered in the main store, but which Gray says are still usable. Shoppers may fill up a shopping cart for $20 and should be sure to visit the toy room. Spoiler alert: Each child gets one free toy just for coming in.

RFC’s furniture store features everything from loveseats to sofas, dining room sets to coffee tables, and lamps to bed frames and headboards. Items are usually gleaned from people downsizing or cleaning out storage units, Gray said.

Due to health concerns, RFC does not stock mattresses or box springs, Gray said, adding that people must move their purchases home themselves.

It’s not all purchases, though. People who have been referred from emergency shelters or who have suffered loss from a fire may receive free items, which occasionally can include stoves and refrigerators (if available), washers and microwaves. RFC staff also work with foster children who are aging out of the system and need to establish their own homes. Eighteen is young indeed to set up independent housekeeping, let alone to know or afford what is needed to do so, Gray said.

Separate from Second Blessings, RFC offers a Christmas Boutique each November and December. Volunteers collect Christmas items all year, organize them and offer them for sale at discount prices.

“Our purpose is to allow people in the community to have very nice things on a small budget,” Gray said.

The Portage County District Library’s Windham Branch is housed at the RFC and includes a free book/reading room for all visitors, young and not so young. Patrons who find books they like in the reading room may help themselves, secure in the knowledge that the items need not be returned.

The library itself is open during the RFC’s regular hours and includes extensive programming for people of all ages: book clubs, story time for young children, crafting classes and even “Hook ‘n Book,” a group that brings novice and experienced crocheters and knitters together in community. Patrons can even schedule one-on-one appointments.

Library staff members even get kids into the gym — anything to “get them off their devices and doing something,” Gray said.

Under Garden Manager Luke Cartwright’s watchful eye, organically grown fruits and vegetables sprout in the RFC’s Ametek Food Forest, located in the structure’s inner courtyard. Cartwright welcomes volunteers from mid-March to early October, and all the produce is free to the community.

Cutting the ribbon officially opening the Renaissance Family Center’s AMETEK Food Forest are the Rev. David Gray and AMETEK Administrative Assistant MaryJo Cline. Holding the tape measure are Mindy Gusz (white shorts) of University Hospitals and Debbie Barber of Portage County Master Gardeners.

For people in need of free clothing or food, the Salvation Army provides a food pantry from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Tuesday. Recipients may attend on a monthly basis.

In partnership with the Akron-Canton Food Bank, the Salvation Army also offers its Red Shield Food Giveaway from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. the fourth Tuesday of each month. Recipients need not even leave their vehicles: RSFG is strictly drive-through, so please clear out the trunk before arriving at the RFC parking lot.

The Salvation Army also provides Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets. Prior registration is required.

The programs are intended for Windham, Hiram and Mantua township and village residents as well as those who reside in Garrettsville, Nelson and Palmyra. Proof of residency, which could mean a driver’s license, state ID, lease agreement or utility bill with the recipient’s name on it, is required for first-time recipients.

The Salvation Army’s free clothing room is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays. Participants need only to prove they live in Portage County.

Hope Town, a transitional program for people coming out of prison or addiction, has its offices at RFC. It’s an easy walk from the RFC to HVRC’s 20-bed men’s facility and 15-bed women’s facility, both operated by Executive Director Ted St. John.

People wishing to earn their GED or who may simply wish to brush up on basic skills before attempting post-secondary education may attend ASPIRE classes at RFC.

Townhall II provides counseling services at RFC. Appointments are required, and sessions are usually held in the evening hours, Gray said.

RFC also offers special programming. Gray is excited about the RFC teaming up with the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio to host Confronting Abuse: Making Church Safe, set for 9 a.m.-3 p.m. March 4. Lunch will be provided, and an offering will be received but is not required. Greg Wilson, author of “When Home Hurts: A Guide for Responding Wisely to Domestic Abuse in Your Church,” and attorney Tommie Jo Brode will help attendees recognize signs of abuse and how to develop sound policy to keep individuals and churches safe.

The event is free and open to anyone, but online registration is required at or by calling the RFC at 330-326-3003.

Volunteering at the RFC is Gray’s opportunity to put her training in community ministry to good use. Her main goal, she said, is “to provide a place people can come and enjoy life, to expand their horizons, to experience fellowship with other people, to do things they’ve never even thought of before, and to provide a place where people can grow as individuals and in community with others.”

For Gray, one of the RFC’s biggest challenges is getting the word out. She makes sure events and programs are posted on Facebook and provides updates in the Weekly Villager, a newspaper that serves northern Portage County, but beyond that she is open to ideas.

With all that it offers, the RFC is run entirely by volunteers and donations, both of which are in short supply.

“People who frequent the building have been regular and faithful givers, but we always need more. There’s more things we’d like to do,” Gray said.

That wish list includes establishing a summer day camp and mentoring programs for youths as well as job- and skill-training programs for adults. She’d also like to offer programming that wraps around the RFC’s summer lunch program, which tends to have sporadic attendance. Turns out getting kids out of bed and away from their devices is a challenge, Gray observed.

About 150 to 200 people attend RFC programs each week, Gray estimated. It’s a number she would love to see increase, especially as fears about Covid wind down. However, since everything from administration to programming and custodial tasks to major maintenance is entirely handled by volunteers, Gray said she finds herself in a constant catch-22 challenge.

Increasing the RFC’s volunteer staff means getting out into the community, which takes volunteers, she clarified. And with a limited cadre of volunteers, she needs most of them handling office tasks. Anyone interested in volunteering may contact the RFC at 330-326-3003.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.