By Rich Bockmann
Less than two years after it opened in South Jamaica, the Sean Bell community center is planning on closing its doors at the end of the month as administrators try to figure out a way to raise funds for the cash-strapped nonprofit.
Friends and family gathered last month to remember Bell, who was killed in a hail of police gunfire on the eve of his wedding in November 2006. As investigations into the officers’ actions and a civil lawsuit with the city played out in court, William and Valerie Bell worked behind the scenes to set up a community center that would bear their son’s name.
The Sean Elijah Bell Community Center opened in a small storefront on Sutphin Boulevard May 18, 2011 — what would have been Bell’s 28th birthday — with a $196,000 federal special-projects grant that had been awarded two years earlier.
“We did well with it,” William Bell said last week as children poured into the center after school to do their homework.
The grant has kept the lights on and the rent paid since the center opened, but Washington has eliminated funding for the program and, come Dec. 31, there will be no money left to pay the bills — at least immediately.
“We’re working on a better feasibility plan,” Executive Director Anthony Anderson said. “We’ve got some creative fund-raising ideas, but they’re just little things we can’t count on right now.”
The city settled a $7.5 million, wrongful death lawsuit in 2010, but that money went to a trust fund for Bell’s two young daughters and his two friends who were injured in the shooting.
Anderson said the center is working on hammering out a contract with the city that would allow job seekers to use its computers. The lucrative deal could cover about half of the monthly expenses, but it would not kick in for a few months.
In the meantime, community members are rallying to try to keep the doors open until the center can find a steady stream of funding.
Earlier this year, several community groups and leaders banded together to form the Unity in the Community Coalition aimed at matching needs and resources in southeast Queens. At the coalition’s inaugural town hall meeting earlier this month, saving the Sean Bell center was identified as a priority.
“The one thing we’ve come to understand is that the Bell center needs to raise money and we need to raise money like yesterday,” said the Rev. Phil Craig, of the Springfield Community Church, one of the coalition’s members. “This is something in our community that’s needed … and they’re up against the wall.”
Craig started soliciting donations, and he said Carl Clay, executive produce of the Black Spectrum Theater Co., offered his facilities for a fund-raiser planned for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
The Springfield Community Church, at 177-06 129th Ave., is also planning on taking up a special collection during its Dec. 23 service, where the Rev. Al Sharpton is scheduled to be a guest speaker.
The four officers involved in the shooting were cleared of criminal charges but later forced out of the department following an NYPD internal trial.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.