In the small lumber and farming town of Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania, no one is a stranger. Fewer than 2,500 people call this town home. At the heart of it all stands the historic and stately Johnsonburg Community Center, which was originally a gift from Domtar’s Johnsonburg Mill almost 100 years ago.
The community center has been central to many residents’ lives. As a teenager, John O’Rourke, a Domtar engineering tech, spent countless hours building his strength in the center’s weight room. Lisa Shaffer, a Domtar accountant, attended Girl Scout meetings at the center, ate lunches with Santa and worked as a lifeguard at the center’s pool.
In the early 2000s, Johnsonburg saw a steady exodus of residents as its young people went off to college and never returned. As a result, the community center lost patrons, the building started to fall into disrepair and programs were canceled. It looked like the facility was on the brink of closure.
After attending college, Shaffer returned to Johnsonburg in 2006, followed by O’Rourke in 2013. Both had plans to build their careers at Domtar and reconnect with friends and family. But they were disheartened by the community center’s disrepair and decided to do something about it.
Why is the community center the focus of your attention?
Shaffer: The community center is the hub of our small town. It’s where we all went to play, to check out books from the library, to swim at the pool and to attend birthday parties and club meetings. It was a beautiful old building that was the center of everything for Johnsonburg. In a small town, places like this are critical. When we came back from college, the building was in disrepair. The roof was leaking, the weight room was gone, and so were the programs. John talked to a lot of us at the mill about the building and pushed us to bring it back to life.
What was the plan?
O’Rourke: When my friends and I came home, there was no weight room, and the nearest gym was 10 miles away. We tried making weight rooms at our houses and garages but that wasn’t working out. I showed up at the community center one day and said, “I want to put a weight room back in here,” and they said, “Go ahead.” I told them I was going to talk to some people to get funding and that I’d be back. At Domtar, I got one of our EarthChoice Ambassadors to come visit the center. I explained to her what the community center means to the residents. I told her that when there was a weight room, up to 50 people would be in and out of it every day. I talked to other businesses, I wrote letters, and I made slide show presentations. In the end, Domtar provided funding for a new weight room and held a volunteer service day in conjunction with the Student Conservation Association to help rehab the larger property. In total, we’ve invested about $50,000 in updating the weight room so far.
Are other improvements being made to the Johnsonburg Community Center?
Shaffer: A roof leak was repaired, lighting is being upgraded, there’s been gardening and mulching on the playground, and there are some painting projects.
O’Rourke: The weight room brings in revenue, which is why it’s a big focus. When I first came back, there were just a handful of members, but now we have more than 200 members paying to use the center, which will help it become self-sustaining. As we make more improvements and add more programs, that number is going to grow. As a member of the community center board, I’m looking at this with a long view.
How do you hope to make a difference in Johnsonburg?
O’Rourke: We have a great town filled with good people, and a great opportunity to work for a good company. I’d like to see more people come back and stay. I’m hoping that the work I’m doing to rehab our community center will make a difference for everyone in Johnsonburg.
Shaffer: I love volunteering at the community center and seeing the positive change. I’m hoping to continue my work there and invest time on recycling projects to teach people how to be good environmental ambassadors.