By Phyllis McGuireSpecial to iBerkshires Print | Email
Preschool teacher Caitlin McConnell and Nathan Keating, who was wearing a crown to mark his 5th birthday.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The building that housed First United Methodist Church for 138 years looks the same as ever to the passerby.
The steeple, the stately front doors and stained-glass windows are still in place.
But the cheerful preschool sign in front hints at the transformation within.
On any school day, the sound of children at play — laughing, bouncing balls and riding tricycles — fills the former sanctuary-turned-gymnasium.
Williamstown Community Preschool and the Methodist congregation co-existed for 40 years, sharing an addition to the church when it was a house of worship.
When the congregation shrank to the point it no longer needed the structure, the preschool stepped in (with the help of town meeting) to buy the church and expand.
As a historic site, the building comes under the protection of Historical Commission.
"We cannot change anything on the outside of the building," longtime Director Sue Hamblin said last week. "Pretty much all changes must be approved by the Historical Commission. They have been very cooperative.
"They come right away when we want to make changes."
As soon as possible after purchasing the building, the preschool fulfilled its responsibilities to bring all of the building up to code.
"We also had a handicap accessible ramp installed on the Water Street entrance," Hamblin said.
Other safety issues were addressed, and a sprinkler system was installed. And with the help of a grant from the Berkshire Fund for Williamstown, a security system was set up in last September. Next is painting and repairing handrails outside.
As stewards of the historic church, the preschool arranged for Lexan to be installed on the interior side of the stained-glass windows to prevent "damage from stray balls in the sanctuary," Hamblin said.
"Sometimes we still call the gymnasium the sanctuary," she smiled.
A new classroom, for the "Puffins," was built in what used to be the church's choir room.
In addition to the new Puffins' classroom for children ages 15 months to 2 years, there are classrooms for Bunnies (age 3), Lambs (age 4) and Bears (age 5), with two teachers in each.
Accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and licensed by the state Department of Early Education and Care, the nonprofit preschool currently serves 70 children from Williamstown and the surrounding area, including Adams and the town of Florida.
Christy Abel, president board of trustees, is one of the many parents who entrusted the preschool with the care of their children.
"My daughter started in the youngest group and went on to become a Bear," said Abel. "It is a wonderful place. I believe wholeheartedly in every thing they do, so I have to be involved."
Hamblin's office used to be the church secretary's, the pastor's office is now the staff lounge, and another room has been turned into the administrative assistant's office.
A couple of other spaces previously used by the church have been cleaned out; one is rented out for storage, one is for "special projects and activities, such as woodworking and music," Hamblin said.
When asked how the nonprofit organization is faring financially, Hamblin replied, "We are maintaining."
To reduce expenses, the heating system was converted from electric to gas and lighting was improved.
Local businesses were hired to do the work, including refinishing a floor in one of the classrooms.
Now, the preschool has set new goals, and funds raised during its second annual Spring Fling will go toward refinishing the gymnasium floor and the endowment, which provides scholarships and funding for maintenance projects
"If you haven't yet experienced the sanctuary since we took ownership of the building the Spring Fling is the perfect opportunity to see it in all its glory," said Hamblin.
The event is on Saturday, April 12, from 7 to 10:30 p.m. The gymnasium will be decorated to reflect the theme "Under the Sea." Karl Mullen will DJ, so there will be music and dancing. Light appetizers and a cash bar will be available.
A silent auction will include Williamstown Theatre Festival tickets; handmade pottery and jewelry; a summer soccer academy and baseball training, gift certificates for massage, yoga and pilates; picnic lunch and tour of the Clark Art Institute; lessons at the Bonnie Lea Horse Farm; and more.
Tickets are $45 and can be bought at the door.
The first commercial use of the gym was on March 7 and 8 when the preschool and Hops and Vines co-hosted musical festival Billstock IV.
"The event went very well," Hamblin said. Abel chimed in: "Now things are in the works for a couple of community events in the gym - one is entertainment, another is a fundraiser type for someone else."
Meanwhile, the preschool officials will do their best to make their wishes come true.
"We want to add to the facility," Hamblin said. "We have a long waiting list."
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