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A Tacoma woman’s loss becomes inspiration for a $29 million community center

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TACOMA -- One woman’s loss now a catalyst for gain.

Shalisa Hayes has been fighting for a community center as a legacy to her slain son Billy Ray Shirley.

Now Hayes’ dream has turned into a $29 million community center.

It started almost five years ago.

“We were driving down Portland Avenue,” Shalisa Hayes said, when her son planted a dream with this question: Mom, how do you open up a community center?

Billy Ray wanted a community center for kids like him living in east Tacoma.

“Because he said there is nothing for the kids in the east side to do,” Hayes said.

A couple of months later, 17-year-old Billy Ray was dead.

“A fight broke out as the kids were running out; Billy Ray was shot in the back,” Hayes said.

Immediately, Hayes made a promise to her son.

“I stood up in his funeral in front of 500 people and said he wanted a community center; we got to make it happen,” Hayes said.

But she didn’t know how to even begin the journey until a group of kids stepped in.

“They organized a car wash,” Hayes said.

Inspired by Hayes’ speech at the funeral, a group of kids raised more than $700 for the community center.

“That’s when the dream became real,” Hayes said.

That $700 ballooned into millions with government grants and donations.

“She’s relentless and courageous; we are 60% of the way there,” said Hunter George, of Metro Parks Tacoma.

It’s enough to break ground on a nearly 60,000-square-foot structure in December in front of First Creek Middle School.

“This site is phenomenal,” George said.

It will include a gym, a social hall, a pool and even a music recording studio. There will also be classrooms where people can learn to cook.

“I am very excited because personally I want to get to experience it,” First Creek Middle School student LaBrya Sharpe said.

It's an experience that may not have been possible without Hayes.

“He probably would be like, 'I knew you could do it, Mom', and whenever I get low, I could see him saying, 'Get up, Mom, you got this, you can do it,'” Hayes said.

They still have to raise more money. Hayes just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C.,  where she spoke with members of Congress on how she could raise federal dollars.

Besides Metro Parks Tacoma, the city of Tacoma, the school district and the Boys & Girls Club have been working together with Hayes on the project.

The community center is expected to open to the public in 2018.