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Your First Look Inside the Stewart Iron Works Building as It Becomes the Life Learning Center

Many of the iconic iron fences that surround so many nineteenth century homes in Covington and Northern Kentucky were created in this large warehouse next to the railroad tracks, a proud relic of the city's industrial past.

Then, Stewart Iron Works moved to a suburban location and eventually the building sat mostly and then entirely vacant for years.

Now, it's being reborn so that it once again holds an important role in the city's future. The Life Learning Center, a non-profit focused on instilling the life skills in those from the community in need of a second chance, will expand from its cramped Austinburg campus to a sprawling, slickly designed, re-imagined Stewart Iron Works.

The change takes the center from its current 5,000 square feet to nearly 60,000. There will be more classroom space, offices, recreational opportunities (including a fully equipped fitness center filled with equipment from a shuttered Five Seasons), and some of the best views of the region from its spacious windows.

The Life Learning Center, which has helped change the environment for so many of its clients, will now have a new environment of its own.

"We're doing something no one else is doing," Said Denise Govan, the center's executive director. "We've tried to find a model to bring here to help people in poverty learn the essentials on living. We couldn't find one so we built it."

And what the center has built is a holistic, integrated continuum of learning that offers opportunities to folks who may have been addicted or incarcerated or down on their luck, to reach their highest potential. They learn how to manage finances (which will be made easier at the new location since the Bank of Kentucky will operate an office there), they go to class, share their experiences, and are given the tools to change their lives for the better.

The Life Learning Center was created by Bill Butler, the chairman of Corporex, who then worked with the Catalytic Fund and City of Covington on a complicated real estate deal that resulted in the swap of Corporex's Robke Chevrolet lot for the city's Stewart Iron Works. The old car lot is now home to the new Kentucky Career Center, another nearby tool for clients of the Life Learning Center.

The people who go through the program learn, secure, and sustain a better way of living, according to the center's materials. The people emerge healthier, happier, and are now working to change their future.

"We're different because it's a long-term platform," Butler said when work began on the renovation in February. "I have been for years giving money here and there and everywhere to the social services, which I believe in. But the problem was, we never fixed anything."

Butler announced a fundraising goal that has reached over $3 million. $2.4 million has already been raised. A roast of Butler raised $200,000 and a recent Duke Energy grant added $50,000.

The Center will open in its new space in the autumn.

The newly revamped 16-week program had 58 people start last year. 24 completed it and 21 found secure job placement. "We anticipated it would be low in the beginning," Govan said of the percentage of participants to complete the program. The good news was that of the clients who completed the program, 87% attained job placement. "We attribute that to this curriculum."

45% of the participants have criminal histories, Govan said, adding the difficulty of finding steady work. Through the center, they build emotional intelligence and social competencies. They also release emotional trauma from their past so that they can more effectively focus on their future.

"They don't know how to channel their stuff from the past," Govan said, "and the whole program is designed to get it out and then develop a system to handle those triggers."

The new tools attained by the successful clients are of physical, spiritual, emotional, relational, and financial in nature.

The new space is so large that the entire third floor will be left unfinished and some of the office space will be used by other organizations, but when the Life Learning Center moves its program to the Stewart iron Works Building, it will find its important mission in a landmark facility.

The River City News got a sneak peek recently. Here are some photos from inside the progress of the renovation:

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Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News