Lutheran Social Services of Michigan’s Neighborhood House Keeps Kids Off the Streets
Long-loved community center offers guidance, love and education for children, young adults toward a better future.
SAGINAW, Mich. – Daniel lost his daddy at 14, turning to the streets, gangs and drugs. MC finally earned his GED in prison and has spent the last two years trying to rebuild his life. Apollo grew up in an abusive home and only learned about healthy relationships from Neighborhood House.
For these twentysomething young men, and many of their peers, Neighborhood House is their best chance out of a generations-long downward spiral. Few have GEDs. All are reformed gangbangers; most have served time; none can get jobs because of felony records or lack of training.
But look into their eyes and you’ll find hearts of gold, a desire to do better and a yearning to raise their children in a home of their own and make a difference in their community.
“These are my boys,” says Yvonne Riggins-Thomas, director of the Neighborhood House, which serves 250 people a hot dinner every weekday and gives children and adolescents a place to be other than the streets. “If your heart is there, and your heart is right, that’s what we look at. I am so thankful they’re here.”
“The Neib,” as it is affectionately known, holds a special place in the hearts of Daniel, MC and Apollo, who cherish “Miss Yvonne’s” guidance. They come to The Neib to play ball, lift weights and find direction – and they have been tapped to mentor children in sports and schoolwork –examples of young men on the straight and narrow, making good choices. Across the nation, community centers like this in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods are hanging on by a thread and the grace of God – desperate for donations and support, volunteers and mentors, they are the only and last island of refuge in a stormy shanty-town-like community where everyone is hoping for a chance at a better life and a strong future.
In its 85th year, Neighborhood House, operated by Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, is an island in a sea of economic and social challenges on the South Side of this depressed city. Many families wouldn’t eat a hot, nutritious meal without The Neib (“Anyone who shows up hungry, we’ll feed,” says Miss Yvonne). Children wouldn’t be encouraged to learn, complete homework or strive for advanced education – many of their parents are working or “not the best influences,” Miss Yvonne says.
In a community with a church and a liquor store on every corner, empty houses and shuttered schools, Neighborhood House is an oasis, offering possibility to youth who might otherwise find none. And yet, outside of this neighborhood, no one knows it exists.
* Please help us tell the story of this heroic place, and the woman who runs it, in an effort to bring more children, more support, and more safety to a challenged community. *
“Neighborhood House is an excellent example of LSSM’s mission of sharing in life with people,” says Mark Stutrud, LSSM CEO. “The community connections with several generations are long-lasting and cherished. Many young adults say they would not be successful today without the support of Neighborhood House when they were young.”
Ninety percent of the kids who come here are reading well, says Miss Yvonne. Even in the summer, she has them doing book reports and projects to further their learning.
“America is full of opportunities,” says Miss Yvonne. “If a child cannot read, America will chew you up and spit you out.” Two parents complained to her about the emphasis on reading; they pulled their kids from the program and one landed in prison, the other dead.
Books are the most prominent accessory here, in fact – and Miss Yvonne gives books to children to take home. “First you learn what’s right, then what’s wrong,” she says. Children must read and do homework before playing.
With donations and volunteers, The Neib could welcome more children to its after-school and summer programs. It could ramp up its technology from one four-year-old PC to additional computers or tablets for children to learn to use – and the young men to find resources for their education and careers.
With more support, The Neib could become the full campus Miss Yvonne dreams of.
“I would like to see it become a campus where everyone can have a place to relate,” she says. “My goal is to be open until 10 or 11 at night and at least six days a week.”
After school, Daniel, MC, Apollo and others wait for children to arrive. The love for these children is visible in their eyes, the connection as fulfilling as family. The children have a hearty snack before plunging into planned activities. The young men find purpose in their work here, gratitude for the respect and value that no one else has ever shown them.
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan is dedicated to creating communities of service that meet the needs of people, upholding human dignity, advocating equality and justice. Established in 1934, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan serves the Lower Peninsula of Michigan with more than 70 programs in 44 cities. Lutheran Social Services provides a wide variety of services for children and families, senior adults, refugees and persons with disabilities. Lutheran Social Services of Michigan serves all persons, regardless of race, religion or national origin, as an expression of the love of Christ.
For information, visit www.lssm.org.