This post is part of a series of articles highlighting Louisville nonprofits; the series will culminate with a special nonprofit-themed Insiders Meetup at Tim Faulkner Gallery today, Dec. 8, which benefits Neighborhood House.
When Pam Rice began working for Neighborhood House in Portland about 12 years ago, she had one of those moments that opened her eyes to a specific need in the west Louisville community.
She was in a room filled with children, and she was pressing them to tell her what they wanted to be when they grew up. One by one, she got each kid to at least offer up some sort of possible future vocation or profession. Except for one, who kept getting agitated by her repeated question.
Finally, the 10-year-old boy put his hands on his hips and told Rice, “I’m going to be in prison, like my dad.”
“That changed my life,” Rice says.
And so what was for years mostly a place for young people to hang out has become a nonprofit agency focused on education and accomplishment, one that serves the entire Portland neighborhood, from infants to senior citizens.
On any given day, some 80 Portland children pass through Neighborhood House’s Child Development Center; about 35 senior citizens attend the Four Seasons Program for a hot meal and activities; 75 young people eat at the Kids Café; 75 kids participate in educational, art or music classes; and 15 families benefit from the Emergency Food Bank.
Executive director Rice points to a lot of saddening statistics as to why there is such a need for a place like Neighborhood House in a part of town that has become synonymous with urban decay. For instance, 80 percent of households are headed by a single parent. Forty-six percent of Portland adults have less than a high school diploma. Nearly 40 percent of Portland households have an annual income of less than $15,000.
When Rice took over, she said most children in the community were not prepared for kindergarten, a sad irony given that Neighborhood House was responsible for Louisville’s first ever kindergarten in 1902 (Neighborhood House was located closer to downtown before moving to Portland in 1962). And getting a high school diploma, for some, was a distant dream.
In talking with residents there, Rice recalls, “They said eighth grade graduation (was) considered a success.”
The times are changing. These days, young people come to Neighborhood House after school, where they do their homework in exchange for time in the gym or in the game room. Parents drop off their infants and toddlers for daycare, which consists of plenty of playtime as well as educational programs that prepare them for school.
The facility in the 200 block of North 25th Street, just off West Broadway, is an impressive one, with everything from computer labs to a brand new playground that opened in September. The Neighborhood House is doing its part to create success stories so that Portland youth will have something for which to strive.
“Most of us learn things from what we’re exposed to,” Rice says. “If you live in poverty, you’re living day to day. You’re trying to make ends meet, so you don’t have anything saved up to make things different in the future.”
She recalls one young man who admitted to her he was selling drugs: “He said, ‘I guarantee I’m making more money than you are,’” Rice says, “and he was.”
But she and her staff at Neighborhood House see more in the people who come to them. From seniors dealing with bad living conditions to children living with a parent working two jobs just to make ends meet, Neighborhood House offers something. Perhaps most of all, it offers a place to belong.
They certainly have created an inviting atmosphere, calling everyone by first names and adding “Miss” or “Mister.” As such, the children and staff alike know Rice as “Miss Pam.”
“I saw the need,” Rice says, “but I also saw the potential. These kids were hungry for relationships and to try new things and to volunteer and to have higher expectations for themselves.”
Indeed, parents and kids alike volunteer at Neighborhood House, in addition to taking advantage of the programs, amenities and nourishment available there.
“Our families are incredible,” Rice says, noting that many of them are living very difficult lives from many standpoints. “And still for them to have such a positive attitude and to believe there’s hope or just to be good people — they’re just amazing.”
Some parents hear Neighborhood House helps kids with homework, and that gets them in. Some young people simply begin coming to Kids Café because they wouldn’t eat otherwise, and that helps start a relationship that gets them into other programs. Sometimes it’s just a comforting place to be. One boy told Rice he came there to get away from a difficult atmosphere. He called it peaceful.
“There’s a lot of violence out there, Miss Pam,” is what he told her. “When I come in here, I know I’m safe. It’s more peaceful than my house.”
Perhaps the best Neighborhood House success story Rice tells while taking a visitor on a tour is the one about Miss Joanna, an elderly woman whose daughter was stealing her money and making life difficult. Neighborhood House helped Miss Joanna escape her situation, and she is now a regular who calls bingo and has colored her hair.
“It’s part of her transformation from living in fear,” Rice says.
During a recent funeral in the Big Room — a large room for special events — Miss Joanna asked if she could speak. Rice was unsure what was about to happen, but said OK.
“You got the name wrong,” is what Miss Joanna said. “It should be Neighborhood Home, not Neighborhood House.”
For many families in Portland, that’s an absolute truth.