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Friday, June 22, 2012

Willston Center's many programs will need to be relocated

The Willston Center
On a recent weekday at the Willston Multicultural Center in Seven Corners, the Computer Clubhouse was packed with kids, a couple of men were playing a lively game of ping pong in the Korean Senior Citizens Center, and it was party time in the Vietnamese Senior Center, with karaoke and dancing.

All these organizations will need to find a new location, as the Willston Center will have to be shut down, following a settlement between Fairfax County and the Department of Justice that calls for the building to be brought into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That would require extensive renovations, which Mason Supervisor Penny Gross says would cost upwards of $7 million to $8 million. That’s way out of line with what the county could afford, and the building is also “full of asbestos,” she says. “We have three years to figure out what to do.”

There has been some talk about renovating Willston Shopping Center and the possibility of incorporating some sort of community center into that project, although that is just speculative at this point. 

It’s also been suggested that if the Willston building is torn down, the Graham Road Elementary School building, which is larger and has a gym, would be an excellent location for a multicultural center. That would require transporting the children who live near the Willston Center, though. Also, the founders of a proposed charter school are hoping to the use the Graham Road site.

The Willston Center's Computer Clubhouse
The Willston building had been an elementary school until 1973 and has housed the multicultural center for about 20 years. The center serves residents of the nearby apartment complexes—there are about 300 to 400 kids in the immediate vicinity—but other people come to the center’s various programs from all over the county.

There are 40 children (grades 1-6) in the RECQuest summer program, which is run by the Fairfax Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. That’s nearly double the intended size of 25 kids, and many more are on a waiting list. The fee is based on family income, and scholarships are available for those who can’t afford it.

The kids have activities like computer games, arts and crafts, and water balloon games and go on field trips once a week to places like museums or King’s Dominion. A similar program, with homework help, serves kids in the afternoons during the school year.

There’s a teen program open 6-8 p.m. during the school year that offers homework help, soccer, computer games, and educational programs on topics like nutrition and suicide prevention.

Karaoke in the Vietnamese Senior Center
During my visit to the Willston Center, I met Luis Oliva in the Computer Clubhouse, a program that receives funding from the Herndon-based Equal Footing Foundation. Oliva, age 23, was visiting his old mentor, Willa Dumas, whom he credits with motivating him to do well in school and aim for higher education.

Oliva hopes to graduate from Marymount University next year with a degree in fashion merchandising. “I would never have been able to go to college without this,” he says of the Willston Center.

There is also a preschool at the Willston Center, and there are English as a Second Language classes for adults run by Fairfax County Public Schools. A Sudanese school meets there on Saturdays. And there are offices and classes operated by several non-profit organizations.

The Korean-American Association of Virginia provides English language and computer classes, along with vocational classes in the Korean language for people seeking careers as HVAC technicians, plumbers, electricians, pharmacy technicians, and tailors/alternations specialists. The association serves about 300 people a semester, although it’s closed for the summer.

Vietnamese Senior Center office manager Kieunga Pham (left) and musician Kim Oanh
The Vietnamese Senior Center offers an “exchange of knowledge and culture” and a place to share memories of the past, says Paul Van. There are lectures on current events, potluck lunches, chess games, karaoke, and dance lessons. Van, who had retired from the Fairfax County housing department a year ago, He had spent seven and a-half years in a Vietnamese prison after the fall of Saigon.

During my visit to the center, musician and composer Kim Oanh was playing the tan tranh, a stringed instrument similar to a zither. Oanh performs all over the area, and will be playing at the first annual Vietnam Heritage Festival at George Mason University June 23.

Another organization based at the Willston Center is the Virginia Office of the Newcomer Community Service Center, which provides employment and immigration assistance along with English instruction. The organization focuses on helping refugees and asylum seekers apply for citizenship or green cards, says employment specialist Claudia Mantilla. Most of her clients are from Africa and Asia, she says, along with a fair number from South America.

They’ve been in Willston Center for 15 years but didn’t receive enough funding from Fairfax County this year, so the program is shutting down June 30, Mantilla says. The group’s main office, in Washington, D.C., will remain open.

Among the other organizations with offices at the Willston Center are the Vietnamese American Community Association of Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland; the Vietnamese Resettlement Association, which offers health referrals and other assistance to women; and the Vietnam Wushu of Shaolin Martial Arts School.


  1. Chap Petersen and John K. Freeman should look into this one. Suggest Graham Road as the Multicultural Center vs. the Charter School. There would be much support for this in the Loehmanns plaza area and route 50 corridor

  2. John Freeman, the developer of the Kingsley commons community wants a neighborhood center close to him. This would be perfect! And, the Loehmann's area has many folks who need the services a community center would provide, and who aren't being served by anything now.