Peoria’s Crucial Safety Net

Mayor Jim Ardis - City of Peoria

Peoria is blessed with hundreds of nonprofit organizations. They come in all sizes and categories of service: churches and other faith-based groups, health-related organizations, education and social services, arts and cultural groups, sports and recreation… and the list goes on. This month’s iBi includes articles about many of them.

Here in Peoria, the health, education, faith and human service fields form a crucial human safety net. In another recent iBi, Michael Stephan, president of the Heart of Illinois United Way, pointed out that we are one of the most generous metro areas in the country in terms of personal and corporate giving. Nearly 50 United Way-affiliated agencies help make Peoria an outstanding and caring community.

We are all familiar with the big names. St. Jude, Children’s Hospital, Easterseals, The Salvation Army, Red Cross, and Boys and Girls Clubs, for example, have wonderful support and visibility. My focus in this column will be on three smaller and lesser-known organizations: Sophia’s Kitchen, Dream Center Peoria and Peoria Promise.

Sophia’s Kitchen
Tucked in a modest-sized lot on Richard Pryor Place, next to St. Joseph Catholic Church, is Sophia’s Kitchen. While only four blocks from the Civic Center and Caterpillar’s Building LC complex, it is a different world. Many clients there rely on public housing and similar residences—if in fact they have a residence.

Under the direction of Sacred Heart Parish, Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Sophia’s Kitchen gives those in need food for the day, support for their health needs and spiritual guidance. Last year, it served an average of 364 people a day, providing 88,855 snack meals for the year.

Sophia’s Kitchen accomplishes this on an annual budget of about $700,000. It is solely donor-supported, doing all this with only one director; labor and spiritual guidance from five deacons and two sisters and parish priests; and many lay people who dedicate themselves to this special ministry. Everyone who comes through the door is served.

It is sobering to note that more than half of its patrons live in the sixth poorest zip code in Illinois. Food insecurity is a terrible human condition, and nearly 85 percent of their patrons have experienced it. That’s why I clearly identify Sophia’s Kitchen as one of our community’s most critical human safety nets.

Dream Center Peoria
On the other side of Peoria’s downtown, just east of UnityPoint Health – Methodist, stands the former YMCA building, now home to Dream Center Peoria through the grace and generosity of Riverside Community Church. You can’t miss it when driving into downtown from Knoxville Avenue—the sign on top of the building says JESUS IS…

The Dream Center is a vital safety net for individuals and families in poverty, starting with kids and youth. In the past four years, it has provided 122,276 nights of sleep to 1,324 individuals, including 390 children. This faith-based organization accomplishes its goal through a three-pronged approach: meeting basic human needs, wholesome youth development and dynamic community outreach.

You may recall the Dream Center was the recipient of proceeds raised through the inaugural Mayor’s Roast for Charity in 2016. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was the roastee, but he selected the Dream Center as the “true” honoree of the evening. The event helped increase visibility of the organization and its crucial work. But as a 100-percent donor-supported organization, along with the continuing heavy demand for basic human needs, financial support from the community is critical.

Peoria Promise
The third nonprofit that is near and dear to my heart is Peoria Promise. Readers of my iBi columns know that I mention it frequently. I do this because it is about our kids, our community’s future and who we are as a people. Peoria Promise provides opportunities for high school students living in the City of Peoria to receive out-of-pocket tuition reimbursement for successfully completing coursework at Illinois Central College. This contributes to our community’s economic development through a skilled local workforce, and it increases individual self-confidence, productivity and success.

In the final analysis, a community is judged by prospective employers (and investors) on the quality of life it provides. And experience clearly shows that a solid and sustained quality of life rests on an educated citizenry. Peoria Promise outcomes are helping us tell this story.

Consider: 96 percent of Peoria Promise kids are working; 90 percent are working in central Illinois, and 75 percent are working in Peoria. Forty-six percent of scholarship recipients were the first to attend college in their family, and more than two thirds would not have attended college without Peoria Promise. So far, we’ve awarded scholarships to over 2,200 students. But that costs real money. Going into our tenth year, we’ve raised over $4 million for these scholarships.

Sophia’s Kitchen, Dream Center Peoria and Peoria Promise share three things in common. They have an unparalleled passion for what they do. They clearly serve critical and empowering human needs. And finally, their continued and sustained existence depends on the generosity and selflessness of this great community. All three exist with virtually no government funding.

This is why I believe in Peoria and our future. Thank you for what you’re doing to support these organizations and the many others that form Peoria’s crucial human safety net. iBi

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