response: October 2013 Issue

Meeting Challenges in a Changing Community

Meeting Challenges in a Changing Community
Children at the Neighborhood Center’s day care pause their playtime to pose for a photo with their teacher, Maria Rebisz.

For more than 100 years the Neighborhood Center of Utica, N.Y., has been a source of aid to the local community. Founded as the Italian Settlement House by the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, it was renamed The Neighborhood Center in 1945. As the community has changed, so have the services the center offers.

Utica's location on the Erie and Chenango Canals made it a prime spot for economic development in the 19th century. It was once a center of industrial production, home to textile mills, tool and die companies and manufacturers such as Oneida flatware and General Electric. General Electric left Utica in 1993, and the last machine tool manufacturer left in 1997. Oneida flatware closed its manufacturing facility in 2005. Today, besides health care, the largest private employer in the region is the Turning Stone Casino Resort of the Oneida Indian Nation. Utica's population has been on a steady decline.

Commitment to community

Sandy Soroka, director of the Neighborhood Center, is committed to developing, improving and initiating programs to meet the challenges of the changing community, offering child care and family services, behavioral health care and crisis services. Programs are run with staff and peer input to be sure needs are being acknowledged and met.

After the children from the day care center have gone home, Ms. Soroka holds a teachers meeting. They discuss ways to improve attendance records and share ideas on how to let the community know of the center's services.

Achieve, inspire, motivate

An important program offered by the center is Project AIM (Achieve, Inspire, Motivate). Kristen Rasmussen, an adult mentor, leads groups of up to 12 participants, 13 to 18 years in age, that meet every other week for six months to a year with the goal of gaining tools to make positive choices. Participants, Ms. Rasmussen said, are referred to the program by teachers, counselors or probation officers.

The program is a safe place to discuss and navigate their struggles and develop life skills to work through them. Ms. Rasmussen sets the topics and tone of the discussions, usually beginning with participants discussing recent highs and lows in their lives. The group focuses on what members have in common. According to Ms. Rasmussen, "The most critical piece is: there are no judgments. Come as you are, and you will be celebrated. Working in a group with your peers and discussing issues that aren't talked about in school is powerful."

The participants receive a monthly stipend of $25 if they attend the meetings and also give at least 10 hours a year to community service. Recently they've worked in a soup kitchen, a community garden and at a program for exploited and missing children. With this service they connect to their larger community. The stipend must be spent in a positive way, buying something that is creative or educational. A few times a year the group will go on outings, sometimes to a local theater or to retreats at Aldersgate Camp and Retreats Center, a nearby United Methodist camp.

When participants graduate from the program they share what they've learned and what the experience meant to them. By confronting their struggles they find the strength to work together. Ms. Rasmussen has seen the personal growth of each individual, and she believes "it's the combination of the group environment and collaboration with the parents or guardians, therapists and school officials all working together to ensure that needs are met."

Supporting caregivers

Another program, Kin and Kids, provides support for women who are caring for children of relatives. Tisher Scarborough has custody of four grandchildren. "I don't want them to suffer what I did," Ms. Scarborough stated. Her own mother was an addict, and she was placed in foster care as a child. There, Ms. Scarborough says, "I was sexually abused, treated more like a servant and received little schooling."

Ms. Scarborough met the director of the Kin and Kids program soon after she had been granted custody of her grandchildren. "I started thinking about what happened to me, she said. "I was in a bad place, more mental than physical. I really needed some help. Through Kin and Kids I've been connected to other programs." Terri Salisbury, the program's director, has sometimes helped with day-to-day needs. "She helped me to apply for help at another agency," Ms. Scarborough said. "Another time I received money to buy mattresses for the children. She's also taken me shopping to buy food. There's no good place to shop near here. And I can't pay expenses for my car right now. I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Ms. Salisbury explained that Kin and Kid's goal is to connect caregivers such as Ms. Scarborough to agencies providing needed services. "We may go to the interview with them to the Department of Social Services," Ms. Salisbury said. "It can be perplexing."

Ideally the relationships are short-term as the program successfully connects Kin and Kid participants to the help they need. The program also offers a caregivers group so they can connect with others in similar situations. The group recently had a cookout, and occasionally members organize excursions, such as a holiday train ride on the Polar Express out of Utica.

Community support

The center's staff members take pride in their community and are committed to improving it. And many in the community support the center in return. Community leaders serve on the center's board. Local organizations and businesses support and promote the center. The Hamilton College women's hockey team volunteers at the day care center. The American Red Cross offers first aid and CPR training for child care providers at the center. Other local organizations also provide support to the center. The New Hartford Rotary Breakfast donates some of its proceeds to the center.

One collaborative effort with the community is the Family College Project, organized by Joanne Joseph, professor of psychology at the State University of New York Institute of Technology. Ms. Joseph developed the pilot program, which works with young parents to strengthen their parenting skills, seeking ways to keep families healthy and functioning positively. The program ran for 17 weeks and included retired people as mentors, recruited through the Mohawk Valley Institute for Learning in Retirement.

The program offered training on nutrition, parenting and resiliency building. Parents met with workshop facilitators and mentors in one room and children and youth worked with college interns supervised by Ms. Joseph in another room. The one-year pilot was so successful that they are now in process of obtaining funding to expand and continue their work.

Circles Campaign

Ms. Soroka is in the process of introducing a new program called the Circles Campaign, which establishes partnerships between community members of varying socioeconomic stations, from low-income to high-income, to work together to create pathways out of poverty. It as an opportunity for low-income individuals to become and be acknowledges as leaders and contributors to the community instead of just consumers of community services.

Participants go through trainings to identify their attitudes and beliefs about their own lives and poverty. The campaign also aims to increase financial literacy, planning and training. It's a carefully designed model in which each participant works to change generational poverty. Larger meetings with the whole community are also held. Community leaders, executives and legislators have joined a guiding coalition to institute the Circles Campaign. The Upper New York Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church has given a grant for the start-up costs of the campaign. And as a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, your Mission Giving supports all of the work at the Neighborhood Center.

Beryl Goldberg is a photojournalist based in New York, N.Y.

Posted or updated: 9/30/2013 11:00:00 PM
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Neighborhood Center teachers (left to right) Roxann Jennings, Kimberly Meyers and Erica Rivera and director of child care Lisa Curtis attend a teachers’ meeting.

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* Tara Barnes: Editor