Since its establishment in 1896, Neighborhood House has been many things to many people. Before other community organizations were formed, Neighborhood House volunteers taught dance. It was the place to go for sports. It provided services for individuals with both physical and developmental disabilities, and it started the first medical clinic on the south side of Peoria.
“Our founders were really progressive,” explains CEO Becky Rossman. “The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and they knew people needed basic necessities, as well as skills to get jobs and provide for their families.”
Turn of the Last Century
One of the first classes taught at Neighborhood House was fret wood sawing, with the help of students at Bradley Polytechnic Institute. By 1900 there were classes in bent-iron, wood carving, furniture making and sewing by Bradley faculty. One of the organization’s most prominent leaders was A.S. Oakford, who led the first Board of Directors in 1910 and directed many expansions in the years that followed. In the years since, his descendants have remained part of Neighborhood House by serving on its board. “It’s a legacy the Oakford family is proud of,” notes his grandson, Dick Oakford. “We want to make sure it keeps going.”
In the early 1900s, most clients were European immigrants and their children, with upwards of 14 languages spoken on any given day. They were Austrians, Bohemians, Croatians, Lithuanians, Jews, Italians, Mexicans, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Slovenians, Syrians, Ukrainians, Serbians, Africans, Irish and Germans. Quite notably, even during times when the rest of the world was segregated, Neighborhood House was not.
Providing Essential Services
Serving so many nationalities, we taught English as well as civic pride and responsibility through the American Club (for young women) and Boys of the Republic (for young men). At that time, most women were homemakers—but not amongst the poor. In 1904, the Catholic Women’s League formed one of Peoria’s first day nurseries at Neighborhood House to support women who worked away from home.
As it turns out, providing childcare became one of our central businesses which endures today, helping to get kids on track by the time they reach school age. “Kids come to Neighborhood House who are two years behind their peers developmentally,” Rossman explains, “and our teachers get them where they need to be by the time they leave for kindergarten.”
An Enduring Partnership
The day nursery was able to expand when Neighborhood House moved from Washington Street to a new building on Adams Street. It was during those years that an enduring partnership formed with Unclaimed Freight (now UFS Downtown Outlet Center), which was then located right across the street.
UFS owner Mitchell Serafin was an active supporter. His son-in-law, Tom Wiegand, served on the board for decades and his grandson, Gerard Wiegand, is currently on the board. The business continues to sponsor Santa for Seniors, our holiday program that delivers Christmas gifts to seniors. “Our UFS family has been proud to support Neighborhood House in their mission to address the many needs in our Peoria community,” notes current CEO Pierre Serafin.
It’s often said that Neighborhood House is “cradle to grave” because we serve people at every stage of life. For the past 40 years, we have delivered meals to homebound seniors and disabled adults through Meals on Wheels, our largest program, serving over 1,000 seniors a year.
Currently, we are taking a step back in time and re-establishing much-needed programs that were changing lives 123 years ago. We are helping adults gain skills to obtain and maintain employment. Through our summer camp, afterschool meals and summer meals, we are keeping children off the streets by providing a safe place to eat a nutritious meal and have fun. Neighborhood House is continually evolving, responding to the needs of the times, and this ensures that we will forever be one of Greater Peoria’s strongest institutions. PM
Roberta English is chief operating officer of Neighborhood House. Learn more at nhpeoria.org.