Over the past two years, the Junior Center of Art and Science (Junior Center) has grown by leaps and bounds. This is true even in the face of a global pandemic and two separate and unfortunate fires at our beloved building on the shores of Lake Merritt. Clive Worsley, who recently stepped down from his role as Executive Director, guided our organization through that second fire to achieve renewed stability and reinvigorated programming.
Today, the Junior Center’s Board of Directors is thrilled and delighted to announce that Cybele Gerachis, who has served as Program Director since 2017, is stepping into the role of Interim Executive Director.
Cybele brings more than 20 years of experience as an arts administrator, educator, and artist in the Bay Area. She started at the Junior Center in 2014 as a Teaching Artist, engaging students in vibrant art workshops at 35 Oakland schools. As Program Director, Cybele has developed 21st century arts integrated programs, forged lasting community partnerships, and co-curated countless gallery exhibits at the Center. Her commitment to accessible, inclusive, and interdisciplinary learning experiences is evident in her vision for the Junior Center as a community space where creativity and exploration are paramount.
We are excited that Cybele has agreed to serve in this new capacity. As many of you know, she has always brought to her work a mix of inspiring leadership and a deep understanding of the creative learning potential of our youth. As Interim ED, Cybele is eager to sustain the Junior Center’s essential value to our community as we prepare to return to our building in Summer or Fall of 2023. We are confident that her expertise and proven dedication to our mission will serve our youth and our organization well.
We are deeply grateful for this smooth transition and for your continued support during this time of change. As an organization dedicated to serving the interests of youth throughout Oakland and beyond, we are committed to cultivating their curiosity and creative exploration through the arts and sciences for generations to come.
Unfortunately our wonderful Center at the Lake has suffered another fire. Don’t worry though, we are still on track to continue with our Spring programming at Lotus Bloom Preschool and Summer Camps at the Rotary Nature Center, right next door to our Center! The past two years have definitely been difficult, but we are remaining optimistic for the future and are continuously encouraged by the support of our community.
At the Junior Center, we are working hard to implement best practices to ensure the health and safety of our students and staff. We are following guidelines put forth by the Alameda County Public Health Department, the City of Oakland, the State of California, the Center for Disease Control, the federal government, and the World Health Organization.
If an individual has had prolonged contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, they must quarantine for 5 days from known contact. On the fifth day, they must test negative and be asymptomatic before returning to the classroom.
If an individual tests positive, they must quarantine for 7 days. On the 7th day they must test negative and remain asymptomatic before returning to the classroom.
If an individual is experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19 they must quarantine for 5 days from beginning of symptoms. On the fifth day, they must test negative and be asymptomatic before returning to the classroom.
If you have any questions or concerns about our policies, feel free to reach out at [email protected]
Thank for your cooperation in keeping our community healthy and safe.
Gary has lived in his home by Lake Merritt for over 15 years. Between the pandemic and a fire that destroyed part of his living quarters, Gary was forced to find a temporary home, and it wasn’t so easy. Gary is somewhat elderly, requires a specific diet, and has many special needs. But his new place? Gary has really been digging it—literally.
Gary is Oakland’s Junior Center for Arts and Science’s star attraction—a California desert tortoise who has been charming both young and old at the Center for over 15 years, inspiring kids to appreciate the diverse world of nature that surrounds them. Gary is now temporarily living at a home in West Oakland, in a habitat created especially for him by two scientists, where he is living his best life.
Gary represents an endangered species, and is an example of an animal that was taken from the wild—probably when he was very small—and sold as a pet. The exact details of Gary’s life before coming to the Center are unknown, but he was likely kept somewhere dark, and was underfed. This was determined due to the pyramiding scutes (thickened bony plates) on the back of his shell that point upwards, where they should be smooth, indicating a lack of access to proper nutrients.
Gary also has a small hole drilled into the back of his shell, where it is believed his previous owners tied a rope to prevent him from escaping. Eventually, Gary was abandoned, and found living alone under an empty house. A family discovered him, and brought him to the Junior Center. Gary’s age is estimated to be around 52 years.
When the pandemic forced the closure of the Junior Center, someone immediately came to mind as the one best suited to foster Gary. Sigrid Hubbell, a scientist who is now studying horticultural therapy, had been bringing Gary food she’d grown at the community Gardens at Lakeside Park on a weekly basis for over a year before the pandemic.
She says he’d get excited about her visits—and the fresh kale he knew he was about to get. “It was something I really looked forward to,” she said.
The Center’s animal caretaker, Zaynab Alrashid, refers to Sigrid as “a super volunteer—and a godsend,” and says that she’s always been Gary’s biggest fan. Zaynab has visited Gary’s new digs, and says it’s “beyond the best situation.”
Zaynab, a Mills College grad who majored in Biology, cares for the Center’s 12 animals, which include everything from a tarantula, to snakes, to a bearded dragon, to Jessie, a Hermann tortoise who is smaller and less social than Gary. Zaynab is actually fostering Jessie until the Center re-opens.
But she acknowledges that Gary is definitely the Center’s rock star; all the kids know him by name. “The first thing they say is ‘Can we see Gary?’” The gregarious tortoise was given free rein to wander the Center, and children loved feeding him.
These days, Gary is enjoying an expansive lot and garden, where he also has what Sigrid describes as a little “smart home,” surrounding an underground burrow, complete with a dual ceramic heat lamp assembly, UVA/UVB sunlamp, temperature/humidity sensor and ample plexiglass for viewing and protection. He roams the property by day, and retires to his enclosure at night.
Sigrid and her partner, Justen Reed had never played host to a reptile before, so there was a big learning curve. Gary also needed to adjust to new surroundings, which he immediately did, and with great gusto. New to him? Clay soil, diverse plants to forage, increased independence, and different animals (cats, dogs, possums, raccoons, rats, mice), including his favorite—ants. And then there’s the absence of children…
Sigrid did quickly learn that Gary’s species is “gopherous,” meaning that digging is his thing. Sigrid says that he’s using his body as intended; his shell for plowing and excavating, tongue for capturing food, and legs for energy-efficient digging.
Sigrid had to educate herself about what plants are toxic to tortoises; luckily there’s a site called the Tortoise Table that had all of the information she needed. “Most of what he eats we consider weeds,” she said. No arugula; but lots of dandelion flowers, white clover and chicory. Strawberries, carrots and grape leaves are his favorites.
He also gets a good soaking each week, which is good for his skin.
Here are the characteristics Sigrid ascribes to Gary, after so much of their time spent together:
He’s not deterred by changes to his surroundings
He moves at his own pace
He rests when he needs to
He blows bubbles
He’s okay in his body
He gives himself time for leisure
And now the world—and all of his fans– have a chance to see and get to know Gary better, thanks to his own YouTube channel. Video titles include Gary’s bout with constipation, Gary observing ants and eating them, Gary drinking water and making bubbles, and Gary’s efficient digging. Sigrid has also designed a most delightful “Lessons from a Desert Tortoise” slide show that further educates folks about the life of a reptilian rock star.
For those of you appreciating how much Sigrid has given to Gary, Sigrid wants you to know how much Gary gives back. She considers him a therapy animal who’s provided much fun, especially during the pandemic with all its stressors. “We’re spoiled because we get to have Gary to ourselves,” she said.
The Junior Center, which is dedicated to providing equitable access to all of their programs, has not yet announced its re-opening date, but is offering in-person and online summer camp, as well as other online programs.
In March, the Junior Center was heavily damaged in a fire that was related to a homeless encampment on their deck. According to officials, damage from the fire to the interior and exterior of the center was estimated to be as high as $250,000.
Oakland’s Junior Center of Arts and Science is still accepting fire relief donations.
Until the Center reopens and Gary is welcomed back by his adoring fans, they can be assured that he’s in very good hands. And since desert tortoises can live to be as old as 80, one can assume he has many more adventures in his future.