Neighborhood House takes fight against Portland poverty seriously

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The Neighborhood House at 201 N. 25th St. looks misplaced in Portland, a neighborhood that traces its roots and many of its houses to the late 1800s. It’s modern brick building stand out among the shotgun and camelback homes that surround it. Step inside, though, and it’s quickly clear the Neighborhood House lives up to its name.

Portland is one of Louisville’s poorest neighborhoods, with nearly 40 percent of households earning $15,000 a year or less. More than half of the neighborhood’s children live in poverty, so much so that one of the center’s most popular programs is its weeknight Kids Cafe, which serves more than 12,500 free meals to children and teens.

“Our mission is to provide opportunities for individuals to enhance the quality of their lives,” the center’s materials state. “Our vision is to break the cycle of poverty for our children and families.”

NeighborhoodHouse-logoDevelopment Director Denise Sears makes it clear that’s not empty talk. Sears believed so much in the program, she left a good job in New York and took a pay cut to join the Neighborhood House leadership team.

“You come here not with the goal of becoming rich financially. You become rich in other ways,” Sears said. “I find it a really loving environment. I love the people that I work with.”

The community center reaches out to all ages with four robust programs:

  • The youth development program, which runs the Kids Cafe, as well as tutoring and other services for school-aged children and teens.
  • An on-site childcare center, which provides care for infants ages six weeks old to elementary school.
  • A family services and emergency food bank branch, which offers community activities, workshops, training and support groups.
  • The Four Seasons Program, which provides support services, physical activity and other recreational programs for seniors.

That’s a huge change from a few decades ago, when the Neighborhood House nearly shut down from a lack of funds and focus. Then, the program was little more than a gym, open to teens for after school basketball.

children2-150x150The on-site childcare program shows how far the center has come in a short time. It started as a part-time program for four year olds only in 1997. Now, the childcare center is open full time and serves infants six weeks up to elementary school. More significantly for the nonprofit and Portland’s children, 100 percent of the children graduate from the program testing at 100 percent ready for kindergarten. That’s significantly higher than the community at large, where kindergarten readiness tests around 55 percent.

Those gains came thanks to the child development center’s pilot participation with the Metro United Way’s Early Childhood Excellence Academy, a program that provides curriculum and training for teachers, Sears said.

“It’s awesome for the kids,” Sears said. “The curriculum is all about meeting the children where they’re at.”

That’s evident when you walk through the child development center, where children are engaged with wooden toys, tables and chairs, hands-on activities, and use real glass- and silverware at meals. The neighborhood may struggle with poverty, but there is nothing poor in these classrooms, which look and feel like a private Montessori-style preschool.

Even so, there are still unmet needs and the leadership team plans to expand to meet them.

“We’ll never get to the point where we don’t want to grow,” Angie Morris, a long-time volunteer and part-time HR manager, said. “We have a good leadership team.”