Community Partners Break Ground on United Learning Center in Downtown Centralia

Getting to Work: Ceremony Marks Official Start of Ambitious Project


United Way of Lewis County and its community partners broke ground Tuesday on Phase 1 of its United Learning Center (ULC) project, a 12,800-square-foot educational facility that will host multiple early-learning programs when it opens in fall 2022.

The occasion marked a momentus step forward for the project, which is part of United Way of Lewis County’s broader strategic goal of lifting 30% of Lewis County families out of poverty by 2030, known as the 30 By 2030 Initiative.

“I think that if we’re going to end intergenerational poverty, it starts with education. It starts with supporting families and working with families to achieve the economic success that they can by providing additional opportunities,” said 20th Legislative District Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, who emceed the event.

United Way will construct the project on a city-donated lot at 415 North Pearl St.

It will feature six classrooms, a 900-square-foot multipurpose room and gym, a commercial kitchen and a 4,700-square-foot interactive museum. The first phase will also feature the early learning center and programs from Discover! Children's Museum and the Boys and Girls Club of Lewis County. Phase 2 of the project will add another 18,000 square feet and additional programs.

“There are few better investments in our community than early learning and child care. Our community is seizing that opportunity,” Abbarno said. 

A $1 million grant for the project from the TransAlta Centralia Coal Transition Board was also presented for the first time at the ceremony.

Debbie Campbell, executive director of United Way of Lewis County, said this project has been a long time coming. After the partners attempted to narrow down on what the root cause of poverty was over the last several years, she said they determined early-childhood education was a significant factor.

The project, which she characterized as a “change agent” that should impact many lives, has largely been driven by community partnerships. The ability to break ground brought her joy, Campbell said.

“It’s going to be through early education that we lift families out of poverty, 30% by 2030,” she said. “I like to say this groundbreaking today, it’s more than a building — it’s going to change lives, for kids, for parents. It’s going to make a difference, and I think that’s what we all want.”

Centralia Mayor Susan Luond thanked the ULC’s collaborative group for choosing their downtown lot to build the facility and noted that the most exciting part of the project will be seeing its benefit for children.

“We thank these groups for their dedication and for the tremendous amount of time that has been put into meetings and plannings to make this a reality. The early learning center, the Discover! Museum and the Boys and Girls Club will make a great addition to the downtown section of the city of Centralia,” she said.

Richard DeBolt, executive director of the Lewis County Economic Development Council, said discussion of the ULC goes back four years to a United Way board retreat. It began as a table discussion between DeBolt, former United Way board President Todd Chaput and board member Derek Burger.

They quickly realized that early-learning child care costs families on fixed or low incomes a significant amount, and that by providing help, it opens the door for a world of opportunities.

“You give the child an opportunity to go to school and be ready for kindergarten, learning new skills that they'll be able to use along the way. And we know that lifelong learners start and have a better aptitude for higher education than kids that don’t have the lifelong learning experience,” DeBolt said.

As a former 20th Legislative District representative during the 2019 legislative session, DeBolt helped secure the first major funding for the ULC in the form of a $2 million grant in the House Capital Budget. Back then, the goal was to convert an existing facility within either the Centralia or Chehalis school districts.

“When we got our funding from the state of Washington, from the Capital Budget, it was a big deal. It moved this project into the forefront. But it wasn’t until we created a partnership … did this thing really become real. And it’s going to be a show piece for downtown Centralia, and Centralia needs this. The school district needs this,” he said.

DeBolt said the groundbreaking would be a day many would look back on and remember the impact that those first steps had.

Larry McGee, Discover! Children’s Museum’s board president and a Centralia Community Foundation board member, said children’s museums around the country routinely have preschools. That’s because educators have learned the kind of engaged learning that goes on at a museum is different from the type of learning that goes on in a classroom or by textbooks.

“They both have relevance. Put them together, we really find kids will learn more,” he said.

Kindergarten readiness is not just a regional problem, but a national one, McGee said.

He said he hopes the ULC finds similar success to a similar Kansas City-based education nonprofit, Operation Breakthrough, which for the last 50 years has provided engaging child care to working class, low-income families. About 93% of kids that come out of the program, he said, are kindergarten ready.

“That’s an astonishing impact — that’s the kind of impact we’re going to have. That facility, by the way, isn’t just some flash in the pan,” he said.

Chehalis Superintendent Christine Moloney, who was in attendance, told The Chronicle that it doesn’t matter where in the Twin Cities the ULC is constructed. Regardless, it’s going to have a positive impact on families and young students in the area.

“I’m in complete support. It may directly benefit, right now, the Centralia students and families right here, but this type of endeavor can manifest itself throughout. If we’re going to see success here, this is something we could replicate and create in other places around Lewis County,” she said.

Moloney said she’s thrilled the focus is on early learning, which she agreed is an important variable that plays into a student’s success later on in life. 

Bezos Academy has been in talks to partner with United Way to offer a tuition-free, Montessori-inspired preschool within the ULC. Scott Edison, partnership leader at Bezos Academy, who was in attendance Tuesday, declined to comment or answer questions on his nonprofit’s current involvement in the project.

The Seattle-based nonprofit is currently under a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the city and United Way of Lewis County to explore establishment of a program at the ULC, possibly in the next construction phase of the facility.