Blue Mountain’s Best: Meet Robert Berger & Michelle Raber

(Two prominent board members of the Northern Lehigh Community Center)
Nominated by Alice Wanamaker

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By DANIELLE S. TEPPER

LogoSlatington is known as a bedroom town, as are most towns in this and many other areas of Pennsylvania. For those who have never heard the term, a bedroom town or commuter town is a place with a generally low cost of living that primarily serves as a place to sleep for those who travel to more urban areas for work. A decent length’s drive is usually required to find things to do. This is all too true for Slatington, according to Robert Berger.

“If you’re familiar with Slatington, you know there’s not much going on,” explained Berger. “There’s no Y[MCA], no senior center, no movie theater. The closest thing for a gathering point is a bowling alley. There’s nothing in town. If you need anything, you either go toward Whitehall or Allentown, maybe Palmerton and Lehighton, but they don’t have much either. There’s nowhere for people to meet besides churches or school activities. There’s nowhere to socialize … at all.”

Berger and Michelle Raber sought to rectify that with the vision of a community center. In 1997, they sat down in Berger’s house and outlined their hopes to see a central location in town where residents could gather for both recreation and education. Such lofty ambitions had to start somewhere and they chose to try to build on an existing organization that had successfully launched back in the ‘60s.

“There was a Playground Association that was started by the superintendent of schools,” said Berger. “It was volunteers from all the playgrounds in the school district that came together and put on a summer recreation program. It provided things for kids to do during the summer mornings or afternoons at each playground.”

That continued until the ‘80s, when there was then a push for the association to become a nonprofit 501(c)(3), which they did. Funding came from the three municipalities with a big helping hand from the United Way. When those funds dried up almost two decades later, that was when Raber and Berger decided it was time to build something permanent and long-lasting, and with a group effort on behalf of everyone who wanted to see it come to fruition, they established the Northern Lehigh Community Center in 1997.

“If it was going to happen, it had to come from the residents,” said Berger. “We were bringing three municipalities together and also working with the state.”

They still operated as the Playground Association, as Berger said it would’ve been too difficult to start over and deal with the state regulations. They put together their bylaws and Constitution. Local presidential representatives were initially involved as well as various playgrounds and other organizations, which eventually evolved into their board of directors, most of whom are volunteers. Their mission statement: “To touch the lives of people in the area from tots to seniors.”

After slogging through “miles of red tape,” the organization has been implementing programs, activities, and functions for all ages ever since, even without the actual tangible center.

“Programs were created based on the need at the time,” said Berger. “We’ve had skiing clinics, tennis and soccer clinics, you name it. We do bus trips. We’ve gone to New York, to Phillies games, to wineries. If there’s an idea and we can explore it, we’ll do it. The problem we run into right now in this area is the lack of facilities we have available to us.”

They utilize a couple local fire halls and churches for everything from yoga and Zumba classes to arts and crafts and Girl Scout meetings. “All of those things will eventually move over to the community center,” said Raber.

They spent countless years fundraising like crazy in order to be able to finally start construction.

“We’ve done everything,” said Berger. “We did an animal touch program. We’ve done carnivals, Halloween parades, a North Pole event. There’s something every month. It’s been fun.” And they managed to do it all without a central location.

Through it all, the community has supported them even when it looked as though it would never happen.

“The school district has been wonderful to us. They always want to see us move forward,” said Raber. “We wouldn’t be at this point without them,” said Berger. He continued, “When we first started, we had no loans. We did this from scratch. Slatington is known today as a trail town. It’s not very rich. It’s a small community and everyone’s after the same money.”

“Hopefully if people hear about it and want to be able to use it, they’ll want to help out. We’re looking for our sugar daddy!” laughed Raber. “They think it’s not going to happen; it’s been so long. But now hopefully they know that we’re for real.”

NLCCThe Northern Lehigh Community Center finally broke ground on phase one in fall of 2011—nearly 14 years after its inception as an organization. The 10,000 square feet located at 545 W. Church St. will house exercise equipment, locker rooms with showers, a kitchen, and a banquet hall large enough for wedding receptions. Phase two, which will be 6,000 square feet, will be home to large gymnasium, perfect for the birthday parties Raber said people are always asking about.

They hope to see phase one come to final completion by the end of 2015, making the entire process 18 years long. “Good things take time,” said Berger. “We’re not giving up.”

“Two of the highlights for me is when I came here and saw the kids who don’t play organized sports; they have nothing to do,” said Raber. “That drove me to work on this project, to help them, and another thing is that even though it’s taken this long, and some days I want to throw in the towel, I can’t because that’s not showing the kids to stick to something and get it done. They have to see a role model do that.”

“Michelle is still enthused and so am I,” said Berger. “We may moan and groan, but we have too much invested. This is our contribution to the community. We want to be a resource. We want to bring the community together and get kids away from the TV and video games; they’re losing their social skills!”

Slatington may be a small town, but the NLCC aims to show residents that they can still get out and do things. “It could be a very vibrant area, we just need a little push to get going,” said Berger.

Their ultimate goal is to see the center become a place for both physical and education activities. “We want it to be a fun place, for all ages,” said Raber. They envision classes for art and music, cooking and computers. They imagine the hours will be from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“We see the need,” said Berger. “It’s like a snowball going down a hill; someone has to start it rolling.”

To learn more about the Northern Lehigh Community Center’s programs or to learn how to donate to its completion, visit their website at www.nlcommunitycenter.com.

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