City efforts, university grant spur new life into rural community center

·4 min read

Sep. 25—The Little Axe Community Center has received numerous upgrades and developments this year that county and city officials say were desperately needed in a rural part of Cleveland County.

Located at 1000 168th Ave NE, Little Axe's Center provides Cleveland County residents east of Lake Thunderbird with recreation and educational amenities and programs through Norman's Parks and Recreation Department.

Recent additions through the city and a grant from Oklahoma State University's Extension course program at the center are providing Little Axe residents young and old with access to new education and recreation activities. Gabby McGarrah, recreation coordinator for Norman Parks and Recreation, said recent efforts have been instrumental to helping the quality-of-life of Little Axe residents during COVID-19.

Jason Olsen, director of Norman Parks and Recreation, said after the community center's previous coordinator retired last year, McGarrah has also led efforts to connect the community to different programming and resources.

"She's done a lot of good for the community out there, and we want to make sure we offer a full slate of programs out there, and [McGarrah] is doing a good job with that," Olsen said.

One of her first efforts toward quality-of-life projects at the community center was reaching out to the City of Norman about fiber optic internet. She said she knew it was important for Little Axe residents young and old to have free access to high speed internet.

Until January, McGarrah said WiFi at the community center was not an option. Internet access at the community center was landline-connected through Pioneer Library Systems, meaning download and upload speeds were so slow certain online activities weren't feasible.

WiFi access proved to be a critical resource for helping kids learn away from the classroom during a time when many students received online instruction due to COVID-19, she said. The WiFi at the center will serve as a resource to help those without access to high speed internet in their homes, she added.

Olsen said while Oklahoma Electric Cooperative has expanded their fiber optic internet service coverage area into eastern Cleveland County, not every resident, particularly in the Little Axe area, has access to it.

McGarrah was able to get the fiber optic internet from Oklahoma Electric Cooperative installed at the center. Since then, she said she has organized free zoom classes for kids and courses on how to better navigate the internet for Little Axe residents of any age.

McGarrah said she also created the center's first true after school program for kindergarteners through fifth grade. The students benefit daily from the recent additions, particularly the free WiFi, she said.

On weekdays after school, Little Axe school busses now make a stop at the center for kids who take part in the programming, which consists of indoor games, crafts, basketball and homework help.

"This was a big addition that was never an option here in Little Axe and other than daycares, there was nothing like it before," McGarrah said.

In addition to the City of Norman's help, McGarrah reached out to OSU Extension to restart a home education group that meets for classes and projects at the Little Axe center.

After talks with Little Axe residents and Community Center staff, Brenda Hill, Oklahoma Home and Community Education class instructor, applied for a sewing machine grant through their ambassador program.

Hill said she knew access to sewing machines and classes would be heavily utilized at the center.

"It's a long way into Norman and it's wonderful that they can have their own little community with a place to grow and a place to learn and to have some equipment to do it with," Hill said.

Cleveland County Commissioner Darry Stacy said he has been a longtime supporter of organizations like OSU Extension that benefit the center in LIttle Axe. He said he was present at the recent presentation ceremony at the center as they were awarded the two machines.

"It was great to see that many people come out and be a part of that," Stacy said. "These sewing machines will not only be used by the [Oklahoma Home and Community Education Group] members, but the general public as well."

But perhaps one of the more important benefits of the additions to the center is increased unity, as community members meet with common interests such as sewing and learning how to better communicate with their family online, Stacy said.

"It's really a quality-of-life issue, and now people can come gather and do these things together," Stacy said.

"It's important to have those resources available so that people can go up there to check out a book, pay bills, take a class or check their email and stay in communication with their friends and family," Olsen said. "We're glad to have it out there and plan on using it in a lot of ways."

Jeff Elkins covers business, living and community stories for The Transcript. Reach him at jelkins@normantranscript.com or at @JeffElkins12 on Twitter.

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