New London's Kente center closing doors after 15 years

New London — The Kente Cultural Center, which promotes the importance of African-American culture and history, particularly through programs for children, is closing after more than 15 years.

The center on Bank Street is scheduled to shut its doors on June 30. The reasons behind the decision are many, according to founder and vice president Shirley J. Gillis.

"It really boils down a lot to funding," she said. "When you get grants, it's usually just for the program, but we need to pay rent, we need to pay for the telephone, lights, things like that."

Figures weren't available Tuesday for the current budget, but Executive Director Jane Bernoudy said Kente is not in debt. (Kente's 2011 tax return lists $91,120 in total revenue and $57,431 in expenses.)

Bernoudy said that increased competition from other programs has had an impact on the number of kids who take part in Kente programs. While no other center does exactly what Kente does, she said, other types of activities have multiplied, especially on Saturdays, which is when Kente offers many of its programs.

Beyond the programming and funding issues, Gillis said, "Our board of directors — we're just tired. We've been doing it for 16 years, and we put a lot of money in it ourselves. We work hard because we are the ones that provide the programs."

Gillis acknowledged that it's been difficult to get new board members and, as for the current ones, she said, "We're getting older."

Closing Kente, Gillis said, "is really sad. We feel really bad because we enjoyed (what Kente did)."

As its website explains, the New London-based "Kente was formed in 1997 to fill a gap in the lack of cultural activities for people of color — specifically for children in our geographical area."

A group of African-American business and community leaders came together to found the organization.

Looking back over the years, Gillis recalled the joy of working with so many students.

"We provided them with so many activities, so many trips. We came up with so many programs, giving kids the idea of looking at their own self, their own culture," she said.

She reminisced about the variety of programming, from book clubs to makeup sessions to trips to see "The Lion King" in New York City. Kente provided etiquette classes and then took the students to a restaurant like Tony D's to practice what they had learned.

Before it closes, Kente will hold two final events. On June 1, it will have a closing sale, featuring everything from art supplies to office furniture.

On June 15, it will host its final Juneteenth event. That will be held at the Williams Street Park and will include games, crafts, vendors, and performances by groups including Shades of Joy, Jim Hunter Group, and Writer's Block Ink.

Bernoudy said the Juneteenth festivities will be a big celebration.

"We're really planning to go out with a bang," she said.


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