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« “A place to be me”: Eastside Community Center Open House Event | Main | A Tacoma woman’s loss becomes inspiration for a $29 million community center »

Matt Driscoll: Shalisa Hayes and the human story behind the East Side Community Center


Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell gets choked up thinking about the first time he met Shalisa Hayes.


Not long before that first encounter, which took place at a candidate forum on Tacoma’s East Side, Hayes’ 17-year-old son, Billy Ray Shirley III, was shot and killed at an after-hours party in Nalley Valley. He’d gone there innocently, with friends, intending to give someone a ride home.

For a kid remembered as a selfless social butterfly with a strong compassionate streak — a jokester and protector always looking to lend a helping hand — it shouldn’t have ended the way it did.

Shirley’s 2011 death is the definition of a “wrong place, wrong time” story. Senseless violence erupted, shots were fired, and Hayes wouldn’t see her oldest son again until he was in a casket.

“For 10 agonizing hours I sat around waiting for the final news,” Hayes, now 40, says, describing the excruciating experience of waiting for her son’s body to be identified. “Deep down you know it’s true, but you’re holding on to that last ditch of hope.

“Finally I got the call. My heart sunk.”

At Shirley’s memorial service, drawing on a conversation she’d had with her son earlier that year about East Side kids having nowhere to go and the need for a community center, Hayes first spoke of Billy Ray’s vision of building one.

The moment of grace amidst overwhelming grief galvanized an East Side community scorned by what Campbell describes as a history of “disinvestments” — including the 2010 closing of the Boys & Girls Club on East 64th Street and the loss of the Swan Creek Library the following year.

“When I got that dreadful phone call about him being dead, two days later my mind just says, ‘community center,’ ” Hayes explains. “I think the reason why my mind was saying that is because subconsciously I think maybe if he had (a community center) to be at, he wouldn’t have been at the space he was.”

In response, almost immediately, a group of 15 to 20 kids — friends and classmates — took up the community center cause under the Team Billy Ray name. They started with a humble car wash that raised just more than $700, and the effort grew from there.

Hayes and Team Billy Ray used the candidate forum to highlight the need, asking the local leaders in attendance, including Campbell, to agree to fight for it.

“She gets up to speak, and she was having a hard time. I think this was within a week of the funeral,” Campbell recalls.

“She was in a raw state.”

The message resonated. Soon, leaders from the city, Metro Parks Tacoma, the Greater Metro Parks Foundation, Tacoma Public Schools, the Boys & Girls Club and Tacoma Housing Authority had all bought in, working together in partnership to help bring the vision of an East Side Community Center to reality.

They realized the obvious: The need is real. And Hayes isn’t the only person capable of articulating it.

Will Moncrease, who manned a tank in the U.S. Army and today serves on the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound board of directors, grew up at 68th and McKinley.

Now 35, Moncrease vividly remembers losing three childhood friends to violence, and tells stories of being shot at more during his time growing up on the East Side than during his stint in the Army.

“No joke,” he says when asked if it’s an exaggeration. “It sounds crazy, but it’s true.”

Moncrease also remembers the crucial role the now-closed Boys & Girls Club on East 64th Street played in helping him become the person he is today.

“There are times when I really thought my life was destined to be taken by the streets,” Moncrease says. “I could have been that kid if I didn’t have an outlet. That’s the difference I see between myself and my friends that passed away. I had a safe place to go; they had the streets. While I was learning how to be a productive adult, they were learning how to survive.”

Like Hayes, Moncrease believes building a new community center will save lives. “Children are still being taken on the East Side,” he says. “There’s a ton of work to do. … This community center is going to be the heart and soul of the healing process, of things coming back together.”

Recently, representatives from nearly every involved entity shared with The News Tribune the progress and good news: The $29 million facility — which at this point includes plans fora basketball court, swimming pool, a training kitchen and a recording studio, among other amenities — is scheduled to break ground in December on the campus of First Creek Middle School, with hopes of opening by 2018. It will serve every facet of the community, with an obvious emphasis on youths. An open house at 6 p.m. at the Salishan Family Investment Center on May 18 will give the public an opportunity to weigh in on the final design.

While the momentous task continues, and there’s significant fundraising yet to do — some $10 million is still needed, including an endowment for sustained youth programming — you can’t help but get the sense the East Side will not be denied.

“The core group of people who have formed around this and the work that they’re doing, I don’t think they could be deterred at this point,” Campbell says. “I’ll go out there with a shovel and dig the holes if I need to.”

And Hayes, through a mother’s grief and determination, deserves a lot of the credit.

“I think that her involvement has been essential in bringing us to where we are today,” says Bryan Flint, executive director of the Greater Metro Parks Foundation.

Billy Ray would surely be proud. But to hear his mom tell it, this is bigger than one story of heartbreak.

“I did this for my son, but he’s not here to enjoy it. This is really about those kids who are here, and how do we keep them safe and give them options,” Hayes says.

“If I can prevent one family from going through what I went through,” she continues, pain still fresh in her voice, “I did what I was supposed to do.”

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