DANVILLE – For those who know 90-year-old Owen Lee Nelson, it’s easy to see how big her heart is for Danville and its youth.
The grassroots organizer and community leader has been president of the Elmwood Community Playground and Civic Group, passing the torch now to Celester Brown, and has long worked with other volunteers and the city in making sure the city’s youth have had a playground, and summer and other programs to participate in.
“This is her heart to revitalize the area,” Brown said.
To commemorate Nelson’s 91st birthday on Oct. 31, her family has come together to see that the Owen Nelson Community Center at 210 Victory St., off South Griffin Street on the city's east side, is renovated and reopened.
“It’s her legacy,” said Nelson’s son, Rufus. “It meant a lot to the neighborhood.”
The building had deteriorated and hasn’t been used for about four years.
Owen said she didn’t really take her family seriously when they told her at her last birthday about revitalizing the building for her 91st birthday.
“I knew it was a lot of work to be done,” Owen said.
Rufus Nelson is doing the work himself. It’s been hard to find volunteers and others to help.
He said he hopes to have the building “presentable” for the rededication.
He and the family are trying to see the center renovated in time for a noon Nov. 2 renovation rededication ceremony. The Rev. Lucius Barber with Antioch Missionary Baptist Church will deliver the dedication prayer. Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. also is expected to give remarks.
Anyone who would like to donate monetarily or physically and help renovate the building can call Rufus at 309-231-3646.
Tina Nelson-Jackson, granddaughter of Owen Nelson and Rufus’ daughter, said her grandmother is known for her longstanding work with positive youth development for the children in the neighborhood.
She said her grandmother was about “creating positive youth experiences for kids in the neighborhood. She just has that longstanding, rich history. She’s just an incredibly amazing woman.”
The center was named after her when East Central Illinois Community Action Agency, and former chief executive officer Dwight Lucas, donated the former Head Start building in May 2001. Owen has been instrumental through the years working with other residents and the city to rid the neighborhood of unsightly properties and her work with children has included a community garden and various workshops.
The building was moved to Victory Street and had a community garden behind it too.
Owen said they couldn’t afford to rent a building.
Children and adult programs through the years at the center included computer lessons on computers from the college, nutrition programs with the University of Illinois Extension, bible study, after school programs including life skills training such as carpentry and sewing classes and other uses. Cherish the Children was another past program, Owen said.
The Elmwood Community Playground and Civic Group also would meet there. The Elmwood neighborhood group was organized in 1958.
Owen said it was important for her to be a part of her community. She’s also heard back from neighborhood children through the years who have gone on to college and various jobs.
Nelson helped establish Elmwood Park as a charter member of the Elmwood Community Playground and Civic Committee.
She said two important men, Rev. Otis Wheeler and Deacon Amos Williams, made the Elmwood Playground in the neighborhood possible. The three lots they purchased were swapped for larger land for the playground.
She said the community came together to clean up the wooded property to have the playground and sports area including a basketball hoop.
The park, a couple blocks south of the community center, would host a free summer camp each year, the Elmwood Park Play Program, in addition to other activities that take place at the community center.
Owen said some of the summer camps would have about 80 children enrolled. The city would help with supervision.
Rufus has a long to-do list for the community center's renovation.
He put a new roof on the building last year. New windows are in, and now he’s working on the electrical and lighting, floors, drywall, soffit and gutters, siding, deck repairs, paint and outside ramp and handrails.
He and his daughters have been pooling money to pay for the renovations.
“We’ve all come together with money to renovate it,” Nelson-Jackson said.
She said her father has been working day and night on the renovations.
Rufus lives in Peoria and has been coming to Danville three to four days a week to work on the building.
“It’s going to be real nice when we get it done,” he said.
Owen said “it was kind of sad” to see the building in its deteriorated condition and it not being used any more.
She’s looking forward to even more memories being made at the building.
Owen has a lot to be proud of regarding her community work. Another of her honors was a 2006 "Women of Achievement" award.
The Danville branch of the American Association of University Women honored Nelson for establishing and maintaining a neighborhood children's play area in the Elmwood neighborhood, as well as beautifying her neighborhood.
Nelson has lived in the Elmwood neighborhood for about 60 years.
Brown said the city could use more people like Owen Nelson. Owen still serves as a voice for young people and families today.