When fourth graders at Our Lady of Lourdes School in East Los Angeles first stepped inside the school’s new activity center, the wide-eyed students surveyed the expansive space and gasped to one another: “Whoa! It’s just like the Staples Center!”Known officially as the Our Lady of Lourdes Activity Center, with students affectionately referring to it as the “Lion’s Center” as homage to the school’s big cat mascot, the recently unveiled building further serves the growing needs of the campus that has certainly seen its ups and downs since it was established in 1914.Recently, students, faculty and staff along with parents and alumnae recently welcomed Archbishop José Gomez to campus who celebrated Mass, toured the school, mingled with staff, traded jokes with the students and blessed the center. That Friday celebration marked a new beginning for the school.The center is an extensive remodeling of an existing building, the old auditorium, and features state of the art basketball and volleyball courts, scoreboard and coach’s offices along with an updated theater stage and curtain. Floors were re-sanded, walls were painted and protective padding installed as part of the conversion which took place over the summer.Funded by an anonymous donor, the activity center is a centerpiece for the school that is on the road back to recovery; it had been on the list for closure by the archdiocese a few years ago because of low enrollment. When it was established in 1914, the school was a modern facility and, at its peak, housed 500-plus students making it one of the largest Catholic schools on the West Coast.Last year, the school began with an enrollment of only 35 students. Today, more than 200 are calling OLL their home, and according to principal Corena Marasco, “We keep getting a steady stream of interest from the community. This activity center can certainly be a big draw for us.”Indeed, the center has already established itself as a sport hub. The school hosted most of the recent area girls’ CYO volleyball games to standing room only crowds. Now with basketball season kicking off, students and coaches are thrilled they will finally have their own space for practice and games.“In the past years we always had problems with practices because we had to use nearby parks or outdoor courts and it was hard to schedule enough time for practice, let alone games,” says basketball coach Antony Bueno, who has coached boys and girls’ teams for three years, and whose son Aaron graduated last year.“We used to play on the upper yard at the school on the asphalt and all the kids would get black hands,” Bueno, a 1976 OLL graduate, says with a laugh. “Now we have our own court, no one can tell us when to leave, we can play when its dark out and this is a safe place for the kids to be. I’m so happy to see the school come this far in such a short time.”In addition to the physical benefits, the activity center also sends a positive message to the students, says Mark Scarsi, an attorney who sits on the newly formed school advisory board. “This center tells the kids that there are people out there who care about them and believe in them,” he says. “It’s a huge benefit to the school because all kinds of community activities can take place in it as well.Prospective parents who might have not committed to the school a year ago are sitting up and taking notice of the changes at OLL. Buena has talked with parents who say that the center and its athletic programs are a big enticement to enroll their children along with the revamped education curriculum. Principal Marasco wants the center to offer basketball camps, workshops and other local community events, not just during the school year, but year-round. She sees the center as an important piece in the continuation of OLL’s growth. “This is just phase one on our books, we have six more to go,” she says. Still, for all the future plans, nothing compares to the joy the children are finding today at OLL. Marasco smiles as she remembers the kindergartners first entering the center at the beginning of the school year. They looked at the logo on the floor and were amazed to see it match the logo on their uniforms. “This is ours!” they told one another. “This activity center is just one more thing for all of us to be proud about,” she says. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/1130/sgoll/{/gallery}