Prom. High school graduation. First loves. A summer job. College. At 17, most young adults are deep in the throes of making these memories, gathering experiences that will define them for the rest of their lives. Who am I? Where am I going? What am I going to do with my life?

Billy Ray Shirley, however, was not most 17-year-olds.

By all outward appearances, Billy Ray Shirley III’s biggest concerns revolved around making the Tacoma community he lived in a safe, welcoming place to live, work and play. He enjoyed socializing, sports and music like most kids his age, but every Saturday, Billy made time to give back to local nonprofits. He donated hundreds of hours of service to one organization in particular called PeaceOut. This after-school program, which serves Pierce County and teaches young people about the importance of philanthropy, was a very big part of Billy Ray’s life.

Billy Ray Shirley
Billy Ray Shirley III, 17, imagined a safe and nurturing place for Eastside residents of all ages to gather and grow. Thanks to support from Hilltop neighborhoods and community partners, his dream is taking shape today. Photo courtesy: The Billy Ray Shirley III Foundation

He came by volunteering somewhat naturally; giving back was in Billy Ray’s blood. His mother, Seattle native Shalisa Hayes, lost her father to homicide at age five. As an adult, Shalisa focused much of her free time volunteering with at-risk youth in hopes of preventing losses like the one she endured at such a young age. Her son grew up feeling a deep-seeded sense of responsibility for those in need.

“I do whatever it takes to help my community. Move by move. Step by step…you gotta get down with this,” Billy Ray once said. This sentiment was echoed in a conversation he had with his mother during a car ride in 2011. “Mom,” he asked, “how would you go about opening a community center?” Shalisa, a health insurance professional, was honest: she wasn’t really sure. When she asked him why such a question was on his mind, Billy Ray explained that there wasn’t much in the way of resources for kids in his Tacoma Eastside neighborhood to take advantage of, nothing constructive to keep them active.

“It was very eye-opening, “Shalisa remembers. “I had seen kids playing in the streets before, but I had never connected the dots.”

A few months later, Billy Ray was shot and killed in Nalley Valley, just a few blocks from his home. In her grief, Shalisa’s mind kept circling back to Billy, to his love for the community, and to his interest in opening a community center. At his funeral, she shared his vision with friends, family and community leaders: Tacoma’s Eastside needs a safe place for kids to connect, create and grow.

Shalisa Hayes
Shalisa Hayes lost her son, Billy Ray Shirley III, to gun violence in 2011. His passing was the inspiration for the Eastside Community Center. Photo courtesy: Shalisa Hayes

After his passing, peers and friends joined together with an outpouring of support for Tacoma neighborhoods. Community service experienced a surge in the wake of Shalisa’s loss, and propelled by this momentum, she created the Billy Ray Shirley III Foundation in an effort to see his dream of a community center realized.

Nearly six years and a whole lot of community collaboration later, Billy Ray’s dream is finally taking shape. In 2017, the Tacoma community officially invites Pierce County residents to Imagine Eastside as planners prepare to break ground on the developing site.

Project leaders and residents took part in a series of community meetings over the past few years to help this project take shape. Many organizations joined together to realize the vision of not just Billy Ray, but also the hundreds of area residents who weighed in about the kind of center the Eastside really needs. A feasibility study, combined with invaluable feedback from community members and insight from partnership organizations, eventually resulted in plans for a $30 million community center.

“The community involvement and partnerships are one of the most outstanding parts of this project,” says Michael Thompson, public information manager for Metro Parks Tacoma. “Sometimes a couple of agencies will get together to create something for the benefit of the community, but there are no fewer than five major institutions partnering for Eastside Community Center along with Team Billy Ray and others: Metro Parks Tacoma, Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound, Tacoma Public Schools, Tacoma Housing Authority and the Greater Metro Parks Foundation. I’m not aware of another community project on this scale anywhere that involves so many agencies.”

The building’s interior is an example of exactly that kind of collaboration. Local artists Christopher Paul Jordan and Kenji Hamai Stoll have been selected to create a community-inspired art strategy for the center. With a long history of reaching and teaching Tacoma youth through art, the pair will collaborate with young community members to design aspects of the facility and curate art installations for display.

The Eastside Community Center, when complete, will be a safe haven and recreation hub that boasts an incredible array of amenities. The project consists of both building a new recreation center as well as building onto or updating facilities nearby. The 55,000-square-foot facility will be a gathering place for kids, families and senior citizens located not far from Swan Creek Park in Tacoma. Metro Parks Tacoma plans to take advantage of the nearby wetlands and trails at Swan Creek by developing programming that promotes inner-city hiking and mountain biking opportunities.

Also in the works is a recording studio, offering opportunities for music lovers of all ages to learn about music production. There will be event rental space and plenty of creative space available for anyone interested in theater, dance or visual arts. Adaptive recreation will be made available, too, in order to make the center and its resources accessible enough to be enjoyed by one and all.

The 27,000-square-foot campus at First Creek Middle School, which will serve as an extension of main ECC campus, will be upgraded to include a gym, social hall and aquatic center, and will expand and allow community access to its library facilities. Aquatic lessons and water aerobics promise to be a big hit when warm weather strikes, too, if the popularity of Hilltop’s People’s Pool and Community Center is any indicator.

Eastside Community Center
The Eastside Community Center will break ground in 2017. Young community members will work with local artists to design aspects of the facility and curate art installations. Photo courtesy: The Billy Ray Shirley III Foundation

The community center is an impressive specimen in and of itself, but the considerable number of programs in development are noteworthy as well. Catering to a wide range of interests and a broad demographic, the classes and activities are designed to offer a little something for everyone in the Eastside. The center will feature a commercial kitchen where budding chefs can come to take lessons. Plans are in the works to host a culinary job training program through a partnership with Tacoma- Pierce County Health Department, and classes will be available for youngsters and adults alike. It is hoped that this facility will also serve as an incubator for small, locally owned culinary businesses

The Boys & Girls Club will be responsible for much of the youth programming at ECC, partnering with Tacoma Schools and Metro Parks Tacoma to create a well-rounded curriculum. The organization estimates that it will be able to more than double the number of youth they serve on the Eastside through their partnership with ECC. The young at heart can enjoy enrichment classes for older adults, such as jewelry making and sewing; these will be organized as part of a Fifty and Better (FAB) senior program. Eventually the offerings at Portland Avenue Community Center, which include a lunch program that takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, will migrate over to the updated Eastside center as well.

Community leaders, organizations and individuals in the Tacoma community are proud to honor Billy Ray’s memory with this much-needed development. His passion for bettering the lives of others was the catalyst for creating this modern and well-equipped facility, and his mother knows if he were here to see it, he would be beaming. As Shalisa reflects on the Eastside Community Center’s humble beginnings, she finds solace and strength in seeing what can happen when an entire community bands together to pay good deeds forward. “We lost one life,” Shalisa says, “but we shall save many more.”

For more information about the many amenities and programs available for both youth and adults, visit the Eastside Community Center website.

Those interested in donating their time, resources or support as the Eastside Community Center takes shape is encouraged to connect with Greater Metro Parks Foundation through their website.