Building a Strong Community

The Wesley Community Center in Dayton, Ohio, supports mothers and families in a revitalizing neighborhood.

Building a Strong Community
Children read at the Wesley Community Center in Dayton, Ohio, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution.

Tanisha Biggerson was homeless. She was sleeping on the streets. She was also four months pregnant.

By the beginning of the eighth month of her pregnancy, she was living in her own apartment.

The drastic changes in her life resulted from the support and assistance she received from Wesley Community Center, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution in Dayton, Ohio. United Methodist Women members are among the members of the center’s board of trustees, and United Methodist Women at the national, conference and local levels help support it financially.

Through its Baby Ready Program, the center works with underserved pregnant women to augment their ability to successfully care for their children. The women who participate receive the basic framework to raise their children in a stable, secure environment.

“If it weren’t for the program,” Biggerson explained, “I wouldn’t be where I am today. I was so stressed all the time. Nothing was right. Nothing was in place. Since I started coming to Wesley, I’ve been able to relax.”

The Wesley Community Center also offers a Job Search and Job Readiness Program. While one woman needs to develop basic workplace skills, another may possess them, so she moves directly into resume preparation, interview skills and job seeking.

Biggerson once worked in day care. She enjoyed the job, so the target of her job search will be in that field. Wesley will guide and support her to fine-tune her interview skills as she seeks that employment.

The center’s involvement with mothers continues after birth through myriad services. For example, if a mother needs a baby stroller, she will be referred to another agency that can provide it. A visiting nurse can be arranged. The center follows the mother and child for one year.

“Our success stems from the nature of the staff’s involvement with our clients,” explained Executive Director Yvette Kelly-Fields. “The qualification that we seek when we are filling a position is the applicant’s ability to build meaningful relationships with our clients.

“Many on our staff have passed through considerable challenges,” she continued. “It’s hard to get people to the other side from where they are if you haven’t been where they are coming from. Having academic knowledge can be helpful, but mostly you have to know people, you have to be able to read them. And you have to see all of the challenges that confront them.”

Westwood, the neighborhood where the center is located, is an area replete with challenges for pregnancy and newborns. The poor housing quality and its effects on children can be seen in the basic indicator of lead-paint exposure. More than 5 percent of the children under age 6 are poisoned with lead paint.

Seventeen percent of Westwood residents have annual incomes of less than $6,000, which is half that of the poverty line. It is twice as high as the statewide average. One-third of the households receive food stamps/SNAP. The unemployment rate is 17 percent.

Community revitalization

Despite these indicators, Westwood is not a neighborhood with obvious visual cues of abject poverty. The poverty and need exists, but the neighborhood is undergoing revitalization. Homes and businesses are being renovated, and not by developers to sell to wealthier people but by the residents who will continue to live in them.

Kelly-Fields finds the center’s mission expanded beyond the people it directly serves. She sees it as an integral component of the Westwood revitalization.

“When I started working at Wesley four years ago, I asked myself, ‘How can we use our property to build a neighborhood?’” she said. “I grew up in this neighborhood, and now I’ve returned. And change is in the air. Already, you can see and feel the change.

“There is a deep loyalty to Westwood,” Kelly-Fields continued. “White flight started prior to the race riots of the 1960s. But then working-class African Americans moved in and it became an African-American community. It was complete with a supermarket, movie theaters and necessary services. It seemed that you didn’t have to leave the neighborhood. But in the late 1980s, the crack-cocaine epidemic hit at the same time as the loss of the auto industry. And the neighborhood fell.”

But Westwood is not staying down, according to Kelly-Fields. Many people feel strong ties to Westwood. They leave to attend college and when they finish, they return to live there.

“They have good memories of Westwood, and everything you need is here,” Kelly-Fields said. “It will be a matter of pushing forward, but we’re going to keep this neighborhood. It will not be gentrified. It is the people of this neighborhood who are making it better. There may be some dismal social indicators, but we are fighting, and we will win.”

These struggles come together into a three-faceted mission for the center. The neighborhood will be strengthened by the people who live within it. To grow, it will need educated, employed people and healthy babies. These three goals are the center’s goals.

Working toward these three specific goals, the center pursues—in addition to the Baby Ready Program—a culinary-training program and a reading-enrichment program. Senior nutrition, workforce development and a food pantry are additional programs.

The culinary-training program is unique in that it offers 10-week courses to prepare people to work in a field for which there is a high demand for labor. As the Baby Ready Program targets the specific needs of expectant and new mothers, the culinary-training program targets preparation for a field in which there is great need and is offered in partnership with Grace United Methodist Church, which trains 50 people per year in its four sessions.

Thomas Johnson, the chef director, was executive chef at the Crowne Plaza Dayton Hotel before joining the Wesley Community Center staff. The program works with the students through the entire process of gaining employment. The scope of their training extends beyond cooking.

The students are taught how to get interviews for jobs and how to prepare for the interviews. As the students adjust to the working world, Johnson maintains contact with them and supports them.

Many of the center’s programs are partnerships with other organizations. For 25 years, in coordination with Dakota Center, a nearby community center, Wesley Community Center has offered a multifaceted academic and cultural enrichment curriculum and program for youth ages 5-18.

There are many success stories. The people who participate in the center’s programs are transformed. It is not merely a process of learning skills that might be relevant to their needs.

“We become their support system,” explained Kelly-Fields. “When they come here, it seems that they have given up on life. They don’t have a support system. We provide it. And we’re very fortunate in that they share their success stories with us.”

Kelly-Fields smiled when she related the story of a homeless woman who has five children and was living with her sister. The center worked with her and supported her, helping get clothes for her kids. Within five months, with the center’s assistance, she got an apartment. Then the center helped her with her resume and job hunting. She was hired in an administrative position at a blood bank.

When she got her first paycheck, she came directly to Wesley Community Center with a broad smile on her face.

“I’ve never had a penny,” she said. “Now I’ll still have money after I pay my rent and my bills. I don’t know what to do with it!”

Richard Lord is a photojournalist based in Ivy, Virginia, and New York City and a frequent contributor to response.


Posted or updated: 5/3/2019 12:00:00 AM