The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this week to convert the aging Willston Center, on Willston Drive near Falls Church into a community center for Indochinese refugees.
To carry out the plan, the county school board must declare the former elementary school surplus and turn it over to the county. The school board is expected to take the necessary steps to release the building at a meeting next month.
The Willston Center, a drab, one-story building, is in the heart of a changing community. It was built in 1951 as an elementary school for the Lee Boulevard Heights neighborhood. At one time, children from the subdivision of modest homes filled the school, but enrollment had dropped off so sharply by 1974 that the school board voted to close the school. Since then, the Willston Center has housed a variety of school administrative offices, but one by one they have been moved out. The building is expected to be vacant by next month.
The center is within a mile of several large apartment complexes that are home to hundreds of Indochinese immigrants. County social workers and community volunteers have been urging the county to consolidate refugee services under one roof.
At a sparsely attended public hearing before the school board and the supervisors Monday night, 11 speakers testified that the conversion would ease the difficulty refugees encounter in trying to contact the various social agencies scattered around the county.
"I speak from first-hand experience about the difficulties of taking them hither, thither and yon," said Susan Flinner, president of the Lee Boulevard Heights Citizens Association and volunteer who has worked with immigrants. "For those (refugees) who don't have a sponsor or a friend," Flinner continued, "or even a car for transportation, imagine how confusing it must be . . . We think it (the refugee center) would be a nice way to welcome these people."
The refugee center was proposed by Supervisor Thomas Davis (R-Mason), who represents the district where the center is located.
Although there was no opposition to the proposal at the hearing, county board Chairman John F. Herrity said he supported the plan with the proviso that the supervisors evaluate the program every two years to see if it is still needed. The board agreed to the two-year time limit, with the promise that if the services are still needed "no one will be kicked out."
Several potential obstacles remain. One is a legal technicality in the deed, which is being ironed out by school and county attorneys. Another is the cooperation of Arlington County, which is expected to move its refugee career center into the facility.
If the community center wins final aproval, it will house several refugee service agencies, including the Department of Manpower Services Program Operation Division, Manpower's Speicial Projects for Youth, Manpower's English as a Second Language Program, several adult education programs and Arlington's Career Center (Northern Virginia Refugee Assistance Grant Program).
In addition to the Willston Center, the Fairfax County School System has four other former school buildings it may sell or convert to other community uses.They are the former Oak Grove, Hollin Hall, Hollin Hills and Old Groveton elementary schools. The school board and the supervisors have scheduled a public hearing for March 16 to discuss plans for those buildings.