Thursdays are the busiest days of the week at BASE, the all-abilities community center in the Warehouse Mall. Games of all types — board, card, video — start at 2 p.m., fueled by free quesadillas, before the floor gets turned over at 6 p.m. to improv workshops hosted by Missoula Homegrown Comedy.
One group is chatting around folding tables and another is gripping video-game controllers near a TV when Devin Armstrong wheels in. Armstrong, 25, has been coming “faithfully” each Thursday since BASE opened three years ago. Sometimes he plays the fighting video game Tekken. Other times he’ll DJ the afternoon music. Mostly, he just likes to shoot the breeze.
“The biggest thing that this provides is a sense of community, and also I consider this kind of like a family, to be honest,” Armstrong says between sips of orange soda.
Armstrong has cerebral palsy, so every few minutes Olivia Kincaid walks over to help him take a drink. Around Kincaid’s neck dangles a blue ribbon that she won that morning playing bocce at the Five Valleys Area Special Olympics spring games.
BASE takes its name from the childhood game of tag, where players can find respite by touching a designated safe zone. It started as a center for young people with disabilities transitioning from high school environments into adulthood, but the target audience quickly expanded to include people of all ages and abilities. “Ultimately, if your goal is to be part of the larger community, then you have to invite that community in,” says Michael Beers, the youth transitions coordinator for Summit Independent Living, which operates BASE.
But the space that Beers and others have fostered may soon disappear. BASE was created with $25,000 in annual funding from a youth transitions program of the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services — money that has disappeared this year as part of statewide budget cuts. And Summit, which has been chipping in additional funds for rent, staff and programming, is dealing with cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates. Executive Director Mike Mayer says the organization can’t afford to fill the gap.
Now the BASE team is turning to crowdfunding in an attempt to keep the doors open. They’re aiming to raise $50,000 through Indiegogo by July, when the current two-year lease for the space expires. Beers says the fundraising target would allow BASE to continue to provide programming in its current location. In the campaign’s first few weeks, it’s raised about $3,000.
The BASE space is warm and inviting, with couches against an exposed brick wall at one end, a kitchen on the other and a long, well-worn whiteboard along the main wall. The room is shaped like a wedge, which adds to the cozy feel.
Between 40 and 60 people come through BASE each week, Beers says, for programming that includes all-abilities dance classes, yoga classes and art groups. The space is also open for use by local nonprofits. But its closest connection to broader Missoula comes from the role BASE plays in the the city’s burgeoning comedy scene. Homegrown Comedy founder John Howard is also on Summit’s staff as BASE coordinator, and each week he and Beers, also a comic, host BASEment Improv workshops at the center that bring together BASE participants and other local comics. Homegrown Comedy trades practice space for volunteer time, which strengthens the relationship.
Comedy and other performance arts have flourished at BASE because they tend to be equalizers, Beers says. “Performing is nerve-wracking. It doesn’t matter that you’re in a wheelchair and I own a business, because we’re both freaked out.”
BASE peer advocate Jason Billehus remembers the first time he took the stage at the former Crystal Theatre after practicing stand-up at BASE. When he saw the audience staring at him as he walked onstage, he says, he didn’t panic. “I was like, this is so cool.”
Like Billehus, Armstrong says he’s more confident because of the relationships he’s made through BASE. Armstrong says BASE is where he feels “truly independent,” a place where he’s been able to create a social life that he can extend beyond its walls.
“They’ve all taught me that I can socialize outside of this space,” he says. “God forbid, if it does go away, I would now have the tools to not freak out, to not go into depression.”