Non-profit’s impact to increase with new location

In the front yard of a run-down cottage, a three-year-old boy plays in the aftermath of the uncharacteristically heavy snow that fell over Athens Sunday afternoon. “Malachi, you’ll get your feet wet,” Christian Orobello says to his son.

“Snow days,” he says laughing as the miniature version of him, right down to the tiny peacoat, plays in the yard that will one day be a playground for less fortunate children Malachi’s age.

Amidst an economic crisis that is causing many businesses and organizations to fall on hard times, one local non-profit is experiencing a windfall of opportunity.

Children First, a non-profit organization that encompasses three programs, Athens-Oconee CASA, Family Time and Guardians for Children, is making preparations to move to its new location.

Matthew Hicks, a local developer and landlord with a special interest in historic restoration, bought the dilapidated properties at 685 N. Pope St. and 693 N. Pope St. in order to move one of them to a nearby lot where it could be restored.

After what he calls “a pretty negative experience” with the Preservation Commission, Hicks decided to donate the cottages to non-profits. The organizations are engaged in a land lease, in which the church owns the building and leases the grounds at no cost.

The cottages, as well as Emmanuel Episcopal Church where Hicks works as the Faith Formation Director, are located in the Boulevard neighborhood, a locally designated historic district.

Moving the cottage to the lot, which is located 700 feet away, would place the house in the “same historic district, same profile, same perfect fit,” said Hicks. “It would have preserved the house and it wouldn’t have cost the church any money.”

Local historic districts fall under the jurisdiction of the Athens-Clarke Preservation Commission. The commission requires that properties located in these districts obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness before making exterior changes to the structure. This includes relocating buildings, even just by a matter of feet.

The cottages on North Pope Street, located just across Prince Avenue from the historic Fire Hall No. 2 that now houses the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, once housed Athens fire chiefs. Because of the home’s historic significance, Hicks’ proposal to relocate it was denied.

The cottage at 685 N. Pope St. was given to Athens Land Trust, and the cottage at 693 N. Pope St. to Children First.

            CASA, which stands for court-appointed special advocates, is a group of advocates for abused and neglected children in the care of social services. CASA volunteers are appointed by a juvenile court judge and speak before the courts on behalf of the children.

Family Time and Guardians for Children allow for supervised visitation of parents with foster children and children of divorced parents, respectively, to establish parental bonds and reunify families. The purpose of the programs is to teach parents “not to be better at working a case plan, but to be better parents,” said Christian Orobello, executive director of CASA.

Orobello said that the house would allow Children First to expand all of its programs and ultimately help more children.

Children First programs currently operate out of area churches, some of which are far away. Having a center in Athens would allow the programs to use the time now spent on travel for additional visitations.

The Athens-Oconee chapter of CASA currently serves around 150 children per year. Orobello anticipates that the new space will allow them to serve up to 20 more children each year, nearly a 15 percent increase.

Family Time serves approximately 20 families per year, and they hope to double that number once the house is in working order.

The plans for the structure include a playroom, kitchen and living room for the families’ use. This home-like setting will be much more conducive to family time than their current location in a downtown office building or a DFCS office that carries a stigma for many people, Orobello said.

Families will be able to cook a meal, play with toys and enjoy the spacious backyard under the supervision of volunteers. The relaxed environment will make family time a better bonding experience.

These prospects seem to be in the fairly distant future, though. The house is currently unlivable. The interior stairs must be replaced and the lack of interior walls is causing the roof to cave over the second floor. Presently, no permit has been filed with the Athens-Clarke County Building Permits and Inspection Department.

Children First hopes to complete the first floor living space as soon as possible. The plans do not include any office space for the staff. Plans for an upstairs office space are secondary, Orobello said.

The restoration is partially funded by general donations, but the bulk of the project will be paid for through sponsorship. Donors making substantial gifts can have rooms named for them; a very generous donor can have the house itself dedicated to him.

Former owner Matthew Hicks donated the property because of a disagreement with the Preservation Commission, and Children First may face a similar problem.

One of the greatest challenges to restoring the house to make it usable is to install a handicap ramp that meets Americans with Disabilities Act standards in the front of the house. The current ramp, rickety and overgrown with bushes, is inaccessible on the side of the house.

Building a ramp on the front would constitute a structural change and would have to be approved through a Certificate of Appropriateness. Children First representatives have already presented the plans in a meeting with the Preservation Commission, who Orobello said is sympathetic to their needs.

Another factor in locally designated areas is the opinion of citizens living in the neighborhood. Orobello said that his organization wants to work with the Boulevard community in bringing the project to fruition.

The house is currently an eyesore; one which could be bringing down property values of neighboring houses. The project is bringing something positive to the neighborhood, Orobello said. “The house is so derelict, there is no going backward.”


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