Jul. 21—Leaders and boosters of Children's Place celebrated a milestone and shared a sigh of relief Thursday morning, gathering at 137 Prosperity Lane NE to break ground for the non-profit organization's future base of operations.
Peggy Ford, the facility's executive director, was among those expressing thanks to dozens of Children's Place advocates for years of support helping lead to Thursday's celebration. Her audience included a variety of government, business and church leaders.
"I always believed this day would happen. You're supposed to know your 'why,' and you just saw our 'why,'" Ford said, acknowledging a group of kindergarten-age children who had offered a musical greeting a moment earlier.
"We know what our 'what' was. We wanted to do better and more work for kids and families. We just had to give up on our 'when,'" Ford said. "We were going to make this happen, but today has only led to a greater sense of a need to celebrate and thank you for being here with us."
She acknowledged "a strong feeling of accomplishment and enormous gratitude to this community."
Children's Place, according to its website, helps "to protect, heal and strengthen children and families from the impact of trauma and other adverse experiences through education, treatment and prevention services."
The roots of Children's Place go back to the late 1960s, largely via the efforts of co-founders Ann Suich and Pat Donovan, and its base of operations from the start has been 310 Barnwell Ave. N.E. It serves families in Aiken, Bamberg, Barnwell, Edgefield and McCormick counties.
The new facility, with about 16,000 square feet of building space and about 8 acres overall, is to have the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare among its most prominent neighbors, on nearby Willow Run Road. The future structure is to have about three times the square footage of the current building.
Helping turn ideas into reality will be architect McDonald Law and the Gillam and Associates construction company. Hopes are to start construction in August, and the estimated completion date is December 2023.
A salute at Thursday's event went out to a variety of donors who shared via talent and funding, including several who gave large pledges toward the property's purchase. Among the most prominent were Rob and Pam Johnston, who donated $1.5 million toward the project at a time when progress had slowed.
That gift "excited us, encouraged us, gave us hope and strength for this last push," said attorney Ronnie Maxwell, the project's fundraising chairman. Maxwell also acknowledged an anonymous gift of $500,000 (used successfully to encourage other donors to match that amount) and support from the state legislature.
"The credit goes to all the people — you, the prior boards, the prior participants — who have built Children's Place," Rob Johnston said. "We haven't done anything but come in at the bottom of the ninth inning, and so the people who've done the first eight and a half innings, we love y'all dearly. We respect what you have done and we are thrilled to be a little, tiny piece of this."
Among others saluted was the late Scott Hunter, largely known for his years as the Aiken Standard's publisher, who was the fundraising campaign's co-chairman, serving alongside Maxwell. "We certainly have him here in spirit, but miss him here today and appreciate all that he did," Maxwell said.
"We couldn't have done it without our amazing community partners," Ford said. "You never stopped believing in us, and believing that we could do it."
Ford recalled, "Over 50 years ago, in the middle of racial division and distrust, a diverse group of committed community members decided to dream and build a place that would help children, without regard to race, religious affiliation or ability to pay."
The new facility's improvements are to include such aspects as the ability to offer an infant class (serving children under age 2), an after-school program and more parent-support programs. Children's Place currently serves kids in the age range of 18 months to 5 years.