Response: July/August 2015 Issue

Flourishing in the Desert

Wesley Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona, helps its community thrive.

Flourishing in the Desert
The garden at Golden Gate Community Center, a program of United Methodist Women national mission institution Wesley Community Center.

The Wesley Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona, has been offering outreach programs to the south central Phoenix community since 1950. Today it provides medical care, after-school and summer programs, community education and emergency food assistance to primarily Hispanic families living in downtown Phoenix. With God's grace and community support, the center, a United Methodist Women supported national mission institution, continues to grow, serve and adapt to an ever-changing Phoenix neighborhood.

Responding to change

In the 1960s the construction of freeways began to divide the neighborhood. Expansion of the Sky Harbor Airport in the 1970s displaced many residents of the Barrios Unidos neighborhood. Today, most of the neighborhood residents have been relocated through the City of Phoenix Aviation Department's Community Noise Reduction Program and the Voluntary Acquisition and Relocation Services Program.

Though the center's surrounding neighborhood is no longer the large residential area it once was, the center continues to grow and serve individuals and families in its now downtown location. The Wesley Health Center was added in 2003 and has been a federally qualified health center since 2009. Most of center's English language, fitness and youth sports programs are now held at Amigos Center, a satellite location at Calvary United Methodist Church on Phoenix's west side. The original location continues to offer after-school and summer youth programs, with participants from 27 different ZIP codes, in partnership with a local magnet school.

In 2014 the center expanded further. The nearby Golden Gate Community Center, originally a settlement house for immigrant poor which grew into a community outreach center, was closing its doors. In the summer of 2013, Betty Mathis, executive director of Wesley Center, was asked if Wesley Center would be interested in purchasing Golden Gate. At the time the price was out of reach. Ms. Mathis could not believe that after decades of service the Golden Gate programs were coming to an end.

After unsuccessful attempts to sell the property, Golden Gate contacted Ms. Mathis again. Could the two respected community centers come together? Following much due diligence by both parties and working with some great attorneys, the remaining mortgage on the Golden Gate building was paid and the property given to Wesley Center on May 1, 2014.

Acquiring the new property came with some growing pains as Wesley Center assumed responsibility for the staff, programs and maintenance of Golden Gate. The Wesley Center immediately began to work on a short- and long-term sustainability plan. St. Luke's Health Initiatives provided the center with financial strategic planning support to give new life to Golden Gate, a struggling but integral community center. Much of the property was neglected and needed cleaning, repairs and updated furnishings and equipment, so United Methodist Women volunteers lent a hand.

Supportive community

In February 2015, a group from Yuma, Arizona, including United Methodist Women members, traveled to Wesley Center and Golden Gate to complete some pressing volunteer projects.

"Some of us are cleaning out rooms, painting and replacing old flooring at Golden Gate," said Tom Gellinik, mission trip organizer and volunteer. "The Wesley Health Center is busy serving families during the week, so we held worship together on Saturday evening and painted the medical center on Sunday while it was closed. Some of our volunteers are helping in the center's administrative office. In the afternoon, a few of us help with tutoring and play basketball in the after-school program."

"Betty told us how the center operates with such a small paid staff," said Jackie Spear, another volunteer. "Without the volunteers all of this work would not get done."

Ms. Mathis noted that many of the staff members are also residents of the surrounding neighborhood, and they are very excited about all the facility improvements.

There is still work to be done, and small volunteer groups are welcome at Wesley Center. Planning was the key to the success of the Yuma group. Trip organizers visited the center prior to bringing the entire group to get a sense of the necessary tasks and to identify the amount of funds they would need to raise. The group shared the details of a noisy fundraiser involving youth collecting loose change in soup cans. The fundraiser provided enough money to cover travel, food and materials. Any leftover funds were donated to the organization through United Methodist Women's national ministries fund for the Wesley Center.

United Methodist Women members living in the Phoenix metro area regularly lend support to Wesley Center programs. They serve as advisory board members, collect snacks and grocery gift cards for the youth programs and even collect soup labels used to purchase equipment. Nancy Schofield, United Methodist Women member and volunteer Wesley Center board member, often spreads the word about the center's current programs through collection drives, Christmas adopt-a-family programs, volunteer recruitment and summer field trip sponsorships at her local church. As a board member, Ms. Schofield often encourages Arizona residents to contribute to the institution through available charitable organization tax credits.

United Methodist Women member Beverly Secrist also volunteers at Wesley Center. She is currently updating all of Wesley's and Golden Gate's social media and serves as their e-newsletter editor. She began sending out the WesleyCC News in 2011 as a way to let supporters know about the center's needs. Ms. Secrist is also their Labels for Education Coordinator. Since the center began collecting Campbell's soup labels in 2001, points have been redeemed for items including electronics, playground equipment and furnishings that the center would otherwise not have been able to afford. Desert Southwest Conference churches and Wesley Center supporters have collected and compiled thousands of labels.

Flourishing in the desert

"I've seen Wesley flourish under Betty Mathis' leadership, in addition to seeing it change and evolve," Ms. Secrist said. "I feel that Wesley's acquisition of Golden Gate Community Center is moving forward in the right direction. With the airport expansion and most of the community around Wesley no longer present, having many of the services in the neighborhood where families are located is a good thing. As a United Methodist Women member, I was drawn to Wesley not only because they are the only national mission institution in the Desert Southwest Conference but also because of their mission to help and change people's lives in a positive manner."

It is easy to see why active volunteers are in support of the Golden Gate Community Center acquisition. When walking into Golden Gate's lobby, you find a new information counter surrounded by small tables in a freshly floored and painted space designed for conversation.

During the day, center classrooms are busy with neighbors learning English and taking citizenship classes. A computer lab is available with instructors assisting with basic skills, and a full size gym with adjoining classrooms offers a safe place for children to do homework and play after school. A large garden offers a place for families to grow healthy produce. There are also offices where local residents can obtain help with securing health insurance. In the future, employees hope to make space for another federally qualified health center, similar to the one at the original Wesley Center location, giving more families access to affordable health care.

According to Linda Luft, health and wellness supervisor at Golden Gate, the center and the surrounding neighborhood work together to empower positive change and build a sense of community. Ms. Luft told the story of Maria, a mother who first came to Golden Gate as a volunteer for the Plaza Comunitaria class, a literacy program sponsored by the Mexican Consulate that helps people complete their primary and secondary education from Mexico.

"Late last year Maria discovered a hardened patch of skin on her breast and by January was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer," Ms. Luft said. "She had no health insurance and was not eligible for traditional health insurance through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. Through grant funding, the Community Health Program at Golden Gate has been able to help with the expense of some of the diagnostic procedures as well as the port placement for treatment.

"Currently, Maria and her family are actively fundraising with tamale sales and yard sales so that she can start chemotherapy," Ms. Luft continued. "Throughout this incredibly difficult time in life, Maria has maintained her positive outlook, which she credits to her unwavering faith in God. Maria also shares that the welcoming and supportive environment at Golden Gate gives her a much needed sense of family as she continues on her journey through cancer."

Maria, the staff, United Methodist volunteers and the community are all blessed by the worshipful work being done in Christ's name at Wesley Community Center. Through their Mission Giving and prayers, United Methodist Women members support the continued success of Wesley Community Center and all United Methodist Women supported national mission institutions. For, as 2 Corinthians 1:11 (CEB) says, "Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people."

Kate Strohmeyer is writer and editor for the Desert Southwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Posted or updated: 6/25/2015 11:00:00 PM
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