LAINGSBURG — When the coronavirus pandemic forced Laingsburg Community Schools to institute remote learning in 2020, Lisa Jelenek and many others immediately saw a need as students struggled.

Unwilling to sit back and watch students continue to fall behind, Jelenek, her husband Tom and many other community volunteers have begun to convert a vacant storefront at 124 E. Grand River Road into The Connection, a free tutoring center tailored toward students of all ages.

The Jeleneks hope to have the center up and running in the spring of 2022, though a number of renovations must still be completed before opening — installing drywall, flooring, plumbing, heat/air conditioning and electricity among them.

A golf outing at Pine Hills Golf Course netted about $7,000 toward the project this summer. Jelenek encourages those who can to donate, acknowledging “every dollar helps” toward making the center a reality.

“It’s just a passion,” said Jelenek, who taught for 40 years, including 14 as a first-grade teacher at Laingsburg Elementary, before retiring in 2014. “I think the Lord gifts us in different ways and I know one of mine is serving. I’ve just always thought, don’t just be a see-er of the need, be a doer. If you see the need and hear the need and the Lord has blessed you, then I think you need to bless others.”

Fulfilling a need

Lisa and Tom Jelenek moved to Laingsburg from Dayton, Ohio in 2000, and it didn’t take long for the couple to get involved in the community.

Having taken a first-grade teaching job at Laingsburg Community Schools, Lisa Jelenek started realizing some of her students were coming to school in the same clothes day after day. One young boy in particular, she said, would wear the same Clifford raincoat all year-round, regardless of the weather.

The Jeleneks had been involved with a clothing resale store in Ohio, and recognizing the substantial need in Laingsburg, they decided to start their own. The couple purchased two adjoined buildings at 120 and 124 E. Grand River Road in 2003, converting the space at 12o into The Laingsburg Clothesline, a nonprofit resale store of affordable, high quality used clothing.

The Clothesline has been up and running under the leadership of a volunteer board of directors since 2006, providing a wide variety of used clothing — from casual to formal wear — to the community at a low cost — and to those in need, for free. All profits from clothing sales at the registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit are donated back into the community, Lisa Jelenek said.

The nonprofit’s board prayed fervently for years on how to best use the adjoined building at 124 E. Grand River Road, routinely declining offers from prospective business owners wishing to buy the space.

The temporary closure of school buildings amid the coronavirus pandemic, creating a host of challenges for teachers, students and families, opened the Jeleneks’ eyes to the lack of one-on-one learning opportunities. With the board’s support, the couple began brainstorming how to transform the space into a free tutoring center.

Providing love and attention

Silvia Jarvis was once a student in Lisa Jelenek’s first-grade class. She now serves as a substitute teacher for the district, and is working alongside her former teacher to help make The Connection a reality.

For Jarvis, it’s about providing that focused attention to students, something she’s often unable to do in the traditional classroom setting.

“When you’ve got 20 kids, you can’t focus on just the one so this is a spot where we can,” Jarvis said. “I’d rather just sit with them and really focus and dive in.”

In high school, Jarvis volunteered at The Clothesline with her mother Heather Strieff. She also routinely volunteered at the elementary school, working with students for an hour each day. Now teaching kindergarten at the elementary, Jarvis can see the gaps in students’ education.

“I have kids who can’t write their name or hold a pencil in my class and then I have kids who can read full books to me,” Jarvis said.

“I think a place like this will help,” Strieff added. “We want them to love coming in here because they’re getting that love and that attention and that confidence.”

The women envision The Connection being a year-round operation, with tutoring available on weeknights during the school year as well as throughout the summer months. A handful of residents have also approached Jelenek about the possibility of tutoring senior citizens, teaching how to use computers and cell phones, among other subjects.

“We need it, absolutely, not just because of COVID, what’s happening, but I think overall because there isn’t really (a place) for the kids to go if they do need help,” said Kristyna Baynes, a volunteer at The Clothesline with daughters in first and third grade. “I love our teachers, but when (the kids) need to do something at home, I’m trying to be as patient as I can but if I know I can take them and bring them here, that’s just going to be awesome.”

Baynes, who began volunteering at The Clothesline three years ago after stopping in to buy a flannel shirt, believes the space will serve as much more than a mere learning center.

“It’s going to be not just for kids. My belief is that it’s going to be for the community,” Baynes said. “I think it’s going to be great that people can just come in, hang out, (and make connections).”

Donations to The Connection can be submitted electronically via Venmo @LaingsburgClothesline. For more information, visit thelaingsburgconnection.weebly.com or call Lisa Jelenek at (517) 256-1399.

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