Butler Volleyball Coach Sharon Clark is a magician of sorts. In her spare time, she turns old rubber rain boots into planters, converts a weightlifting bench to a patio seat, and salvages a barrel of discarded shoe soles to recycle into a sculpture.
“I don’t like putting things in the landfill,” she said.
And now for her greatest feat: Clark and her husband, Tim, are turning a long-vacant 1897 fire station, located in a downtrodden neighborhood about four miles southwest of Butler’s campus, into a community center complete with an art studio, kitchen, and residential units.
“When we found the building, we got inspired by that neighborhood and wanted to help revive it,” Clark said. “Our plan and our goal is to be that first beacon of light, the first renewed piece. Our goal is to help revive that neighborhood one block at a time.”
The Clarks bought the two-story brick firehouse in 2012 because Sharon wanted workshop space to reclaim and repurpose furniture. The building was boarded up, tagged with graffiti, and filled to the rafters with all kinds of junk—an inoperable forklift, boxes and boxes of shoe heels and shoe polish, church pews, engine blocks. It was such a mess that it actually scared children who passed by on their way to the neighborhood elementary school.
Two years ago, local community organizer LaShawnda Crowe Storm connected Clark with neighborhood residents and students from nearby Marian University to decorate the outside of the building with a mural. “Kind of like tagging it back,” Clark said. She put up an A-shaped fence to keep people from dumping in the back lot and gave the building a name: Aspire House. “For the community to aspire to something higher.”
The Clarks have since replaced the leaky roof, gutters, and most of the windows. One side of the building has been tuckpointed, an inner wall has been repaired, and decades of detritus has been discarded.
Sharon and Tim, Vice President of Programs for the Simon Youth Foundation, work on the building nights and weekends (“and weekends when you coach volleyball aren’t actually weekends”), during summer and spring break. Friends come to help, and Sharon’s dad has come in from California several times for a week at a time.
Sharon envisions the building with an art studio in front, where neighborhood kids can participate in creative enterprises and learn a skill, and some kind of commercial kitchen in the back. “This is a food desert over here,” she said. “There are no restaurants, no stores, no grocery store. So there’s a need.” Upstairs will be two residential units.
The ultimate goal is to make the building financially self-sustaining. She figures they’re about two years from finishing—if they get grants. If the project ends up being self-financed, it will take much longer.
“I will be proud when this is done,” she said. “Even with the stress that you go through—am I doing the right thing?—every time someone stops and says, ‘It looks great’ or ‘good job’ or ‘thank you,’ you get your energy going again. That makes it worthwhile.”