Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A True Neighborhood Center

Story & photos by Richard Lord
Reprinted with permission

As you drive into the Midtown neighborhood of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the smooth pavement starts to deteriorate. The road is marked with potholes, overgrowth, broken streetlights and other infrastructure neglect. The quality of public services is reflected in its poverty.

It’s in this neighborhood that the Neighborhood Center works to empower the community.

The Neighborhood Center is a United Methodist Women supported national mission institution and an affiliated agency of the Susquehanna Conference of The United Methodist Church. Once known as the Methodist Mission, the center has been serving Harrisburg since 1910 and remains in relationship with the church. The mission was founded by United Methodist Women predecessors the Board of Deaconess Work and the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The community-based center specializes in helping young people discover and develop their capabilities so that their lives and the life of the community can be enhanced, offering infant and child care, preschool, before- and after-school programs, summer programs, game nights, nutrition and clothing outreach, a prescription eyeglass program and a young mothers program, among other offerings.

Neighborhood Center and United Methodist Women 
“This is part of who we are,” said Toni Oplinger, president of the Susquehanna Conference United Methodist Women. “United Methodist Women is about children. We’re about anything that benefits women, children and youth.”
United Methodist Women members from the local to national level support Neighborhood Center. Mission Giving supports the center financially, and local United Methodist Women volunteers provide additional support through both service and advocacy. The summertime free and reduced lunch program, which serves about 90 kids, is staffed by United Methodist Women members. And United Methodist Women members provide funds to stock the kitchen.

Support for young mothers 
Neighborhood House reaches out to the most vulnerable. In some cases, one time aid can resolve an acute issue. In other cases a longer term relationship is more helpful. Teen mothers fall into the latter category.

Maria Ramirez became pregnant when she was 14 years old. Her parents were not supportive. Today Ms. Ramirez lives with her partner, a restaurant manager, and their two children.

She learned of Neighborhood Center’s Young Mothers program from a speaker who spoke to her class in middle school. She knew that there were resources available to her when her parents refused her.

Between five and seven teens currently attend the Young Mothers Program monthly meeting. In the group sessions they talk about child safety, parenting, life skills and family enhancement. It helps new mothers feel better prepared for their role, especially within a society that is not supportive. The program also offers individual counseling and supplies, such as clothing, diapers and formula. In addition, each of the participants meet with Tamika Lester, the health projects coordinator, for individualized sessions, to help mothers get needed supplies or just to talk. Many of the subjects they discuss are practical, dealing with issues such as behavior management.

“When one of my kids was out of control screaming, my initial reaction was to get pulled into the fight and to start screaming,” Ms. Ramirez said. “At Neighborhood Center, I learned to walk away from the fight. To leave the room. To gather my senses and self-control. Then I could return to the room and we could start over. With better results. “Neighborhood Center has taught me to be in control of myself. To have more confidence. I feel free because of Neighborhood Center and this strength that they have given me. I know that they will be there for me, that they’ll support me.”

A community resource 
Neighborhood Center is a fixture in Midtown. Much of Neighborhood Center’s outreach happens informally. People participate in one of the center’s activities, then they get involved.

It is truly a neighborhood center. Between 80 and 90 percent of people who use the services come from Midtown. And 24 percent of Midtown residents live below the poverty line. Eighty percent of the children in the preschool pay the low weekly tuition with funds they receive from state subsidy programs. The center aims to help a wide range of children, beginning as young as 6 weeks old (as many working women are given only this amount of time for maternity leave). The center also offers programs after school, including meals. The center serves more than 4,000 dinners per month.

The center is also a voting place for two precincts. The Food Bank and Clothes Closet are filled with energy. The Young Mothers Program is complemented with a Young Fathers program, which is co-sponsored by United Way. There are bake sales and an elder food share. The center offers a prescription eyeglass program for people who cannot afford glasses. It has a bicycle recycling program and a used furniture ministry. There are potential points for involvement for many Midtown residents.

Meeting changing needs
Throughout its history, Neighborhood Center has been a service innovator. In the 1930s, it offered the first classes for special needs kids in Harrisburg, and it was sure to reach out to African American children as the public school system neglected (and neglects) them. This service was curtailed when special needs kids were integrated in the public schools.

Its original mission was the provision of services teaching English to immigrants. Slavic immigrants and Italians were among the initial recipients, with a strong representation of Eastern European Jews. As the government and other nonprofits began offering English as a second language classes to help meet this need, Neighborhood Center moved on to target programs to alleviate poverty.

Vivian Thompson, executive director at the writing of this article, had been executive director of Neighborhood Center for 14 years. She worked in a corporate job when she began to volunteer for the peewee football league, which meets at Neighborhood Center. Her involvement grew until she became executive director.

The significance of volunteers at Neighborhood Center is considerable. The volunteer programs are large. Three hundred and fifty people receive assistance from the Food Bank monthly. One hundred and forty-five people come to the clothes closet every month. Both have major impact on the community and thus require considerable labor. Neighborhood Center has a full-time paid staff of four and 20 part-time staff. In 2014, the labor need was filled with 5,400 hours of volunteer time and $123,000 of gift-in-kind donations.

United Methodist Women members’ Mission Giving significantly funds Neighborhood Center. Around 300 United Methodist churches also contribute to the center’s annual operating budget.

It would be difficult to find a person who has lived in Harrisburg’s Midtown in the past 100 years whose life was not touched—and improved—by Neighborhood Center.

This article first appeared in the December, 2015, issue of response magazine (a publication of United Methodist Women). Richard Lord is a photojournalist based in Ivy, Virginia, and New York City and is a frequent contributor to response. View Lord’s portfolio at

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