A Model Community Center
Driving through Harrisburg, the capital city of Pennsylvania today, one would hardly guess that in 1907 the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church declared the region a “foreign mission field.” They urged the greater church body to recognize and acknowledge the influx of immigrants from eastern Europe and to help with the needed work. Out of this need grew the “Methodist Mission.”
The original mission project was located in a building at 402 South Second Street in the city, which is no longer in existence. Miss Helen E. Kirk of Albany, New York, was hired as the first Deaconess in Harrisburg and officially began her duties on September 26, 1910.
After considerable discussion the first year, a decision was made to adopt a policy of charging a “nominal fee of five cents per week for each child attending the kindergarten.” The philosophy that there is value in charging something, no matter how small the fee, has been adhered to until the present time as a way of encouraging more participant “ownership” in the center’s work.
In addition to the regular kindergarten, there were various interest groups for both boys and girls after school and in the evening hours. It seems that one of the most popular was “kitchengarden,” a program designed to instruct children in setting tables, sweeping, dusting, etc. English classes were held twice a week, and by April 1912 various Slavic people began showing up in these classes.
As the history of the Methodist Mission evolved, a change in perspective began to make itself felt. From an early sort of “benevolent paternalism,” there began a move toward incorporating more and more neighborhood people into the work, as staff, board members and vocal participants. One example was the “Parents’ Group” started in 1944. Its goal was to foster a better understanding between parents and teachers and to help parents with parenting skills and family problems.
Neighborhood Center helped to organize and nurture a group called “The Uptown Civic Association” which, from its incorporation in 1961, continued to grow and assume more and more responsibility. Another neighborhood group, the Senior Citizens, was formed and operated out of the Center for several years. Today it has its own staff, building, and daily programming for seniors.
During the 1970s, Neighborhood Center moved out into the neighborhood and the wider community. Staff members attended the TriCounty Welfare Council, sat on the Committee of the Harrisburg-Steelton Highspire Vocational School, worked with student teachers in the Early Childhood program, and held membership in the Tri-County Nutrition Committee and the Hamilton Area Senior Citizens Council. Staff member Anita McLaughlin epitomized this new outreach, and for several months was on loan from the Center to the State Hospital to aid patients in establishing Social Security claims.
By the fall of 1980, it was obvious to most people that the old building at 610 Maclay Street, which had seen almost three decades of hard use by the center and which had been old when first purchased in the 1950’s, was not going to be serviceable very much longer. Director Lenore Haas (October 1978-August 1988) must be credited with the initial vision to see a brand new facility that would lend itself to the quality programming that the center was developing under her leadership. From the time that a building committee was formed in 1980, the United Methodist Women provided much of the needed credibility and stimulation. There can be no question that without the leadership and financial support of the United Methodist Women at all levels, the new building, which was dedicated on Sunday, September 9, 1984, could not have been built.
Under the personal direction of Haas, a prison ministry was developed that ministered to the needs of persons at the Dauphin County Prison. Another new program was Young Mothers Together, a support group for teenage mothers. This program was aimed at breaking the cyclical nature of teenage pregnancies, addressing the reasons for the problems faced by very young parents, seeking ways to improve self-esteem, and providing support through both individual and group counseling.
Philosophically, the biggest news of the decade may have been the July 15, 1987 “Covenant Agreement” of relationship between Neighborhood Center and the National Division of the General Board of Global Ministries. This was a reaffirmation of Neighborhood Center’s primary relationship and shared mission with The United Methodist Church. At the signing of the agreement, Sandra Swans of the National Division called Neighborhood Center “a model community center” within the United Methodist connection.
In the 1990s, programs continued to emerge at Neighborhood Center as new needs are identified. Project H.O.M.E.S., a new program of hands-on home repair training and education, was enthusiastically embraced by low- and moderate-income families who are finding opportunities for first-time home ownership. The project includes a tool lending library and specialized educational seminars.
Neighborhood Center of The United Methodist Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, remains a powerful Christian witness, and a unique and distinctly United Methodist mission outreach. As it has for over eight decades, Neighborhood Center faces a future of challenge and hope, struggle and faith.
Adapted from Robert H. Terry and Daniel M. Welliver, “Neighborhood Center: An Urban Love Story” Methodist History 34 no. 4 (July 1996): 248-259.