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EXCHANGE: Church-turned-community center growing leaders

November 9, 2018

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — A South Peoria church is being turned into a community center to bring resources to people living in the 61605 ZIP code and “transform the community one relationship at a time.”

In the former South Side Church of the Nazarene, the Southside Community Center opened in May and hit the ground running, offering Dinner Church twice a week.

“The food desert that we’re swimming in for two ZIP codes over here — how do we make an impact?” Irene Lewis-Wimbley, director of the center, asked.

On Tuesdays, Dinner Church brings local residents to the community center for a home-cooked meal and Bible story discussion. On Thursday nights, volunteers set up Dinner Church in the middle of the Harrison Homes in South Peoria.

“As we started to look at the community, there’s no outlets for food on this side, and the only place you can really go is Family Dollar or Dollar General, where you can pay too much for milk, eggs and cheese,” Lewis-Wimbley said.

Given the “significant poverty” of the area, the Southside Community Center team started working before the building renovations were finished. Soon the learning center and computer lab will be available and stocked with literacy coaches to grow adult literacy and help adults earn GED diplomas.

Lewis-Wimbley’s goal is to train people to be leaders within their community, which includes a Moms Offering Moms Support group that is in the works as well as a recovery support program.

The volunteers at Southside are excited to pour resources into the community and use asset-based community development principles to build the community center up to be a place where people can be connected with the right service to improve their situation, Lewis-Wimbley said.

“We’re never going to really be a handout necessarily, but we will teach you and we’ll sit down at a meal with you and build a relationship and hopefully get you the information that you need to make good decisions,” she said.

Back in warmer months, the center worked with Peoria Public Schools, Peoria Housing Authority and United Methodist Church to offer a free summer day camp that provided breakfast and lunch to kids. Combining efforts with Grow Peoria gave local kids access to the community gardens, where they learned to grow, preserve and cook fresh vegetables, Lewis-Wimbley said.

“Hopefully we’re able to give the youth some experiences that would help them be able to dream,” she said. “I talk about trauma attachment a lot and when you’re living in survival mode, you cannot dream. I want this to be a reconciliation space where kids can dream.”

The collaboration of local organizations, especially churches, is at the core of Lewis-Wimbley’s plan for the center.

“As we start looking at these churches, how do we partner, work together and stop duplicating services,” Lewis-Wimbley said. “What I find is we have tons of people doing tons of passionate things, but they’re doing it in a silo and they don’t realize that they’re duplicating services.”

Southside Community Center has expanded its partnerships outside the congregation to bring in those with medical experience to work with the community as well. Nursing students were given the opportunity to practice developmental screenings on young children.

“They were really impacted by some of the stories of the moms and being able to be in a culturally different place,” Lewis-Wimbley said. “It’s totally different than the classroom, it’s totally different than the hospital. You’re bringing that care and education into their world, and that really was a blessing to the students.”

Lewis-Wimbley said the community center plans have been set in motion and more members of the community have begun to utilize it. Eventually, Southside Community Center may expand to offer a farmers market or a co-op in which the community can grow and learn together.

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/2CzD1qD

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Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com

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