UMCH History

The Beginning

In September 1902, a group of women from the Methodist Churches of the Grand Rapids District organized a club to do settlement work. They selected Irene Cummings, a Deaconess, to supervise the project. The place of operation was a store building on Ellsworth Avenue. The program included classes for kindergarten and early elementary children (all girls). By the second year, two evenings a week were devoted to a program for boys. As the project grew, Irene Cummings was succeeded by Bertha Clark with Nellie Shorter as an assistant. Classes were offered in Bible study, citizenship , cooking, sewing and handy-crafts. Already the program was beginning to meet the needs of ethnically-diverse people, among them several Syrian families.

After a decade of service, it was evident that here was a growing and deserving program that merited expansion. Property was purchased at 314 Wealthy Street. Individuals were chosen from several Methodist Churches to serve on a governing board. The name of the organization was changed to the Methodist Community House. As the project grew, financial support was obtained from the Woman’s House Missionary Society.

Growing Up

In the decades of the 1920s and 30s, more activities were included in Community House’s offerings, including Sunday school, religious services, and recreational and social events. A Boy Scout troop was also added.

In 1936, the first day nursery (child care center) in Grand Rapids was opened at the Methodist Community House. Lela Powers was the first Director. This program was soon expanded to offer services for 20 pre-school children.

During World War II, the staff was enlarged to include two full-time workers and a housekeeper.

1940's - Major Changes

The newly organized Woman’s Society of Christian Service became the sponsor of Community House. Lela Powers continued as Director, assisted by Katherine Strover and a number of volunteers. A new innovation in programming was introduced by the Youth Commonwealth, an organization of the Grand Rapids Police Department working with older boys in the area.

Having served at the Community House for 15 years, Miss Powers was granted a sabbatical year for rest and study. Lillian Ellis was appointed Director. Around this time, the fire department served notice that the building was about to be condemned as unsafe for children. It was estimated that $20,000 would be needed to refurbish the building. The nursery school was discontinued and other programs were moved to different locations.

1950's - Expansion & Reorganization

During the next five years, important decisions were made to sell the condemned property and relocate. A property at 904 Sheldon Avenue SE was purchased, remodeled and redecorated. Funds were also raised to build a nursery school unit. Construction was completed by December 1956. Under Mrs. Lawrence (Bunny) Voss, the new Director, a threefold program was developed, including a day care center, group work and a counseling program.

Doris Degraff served as the next Director with Mrs. Margaret White as Program Director. Under their leadership, programming continued to grow, offering school-aged children activities such as sewing, dancing, choir, wood working, Camp Fire Girls, games day and nutrition classes in cooperation with Sheldon School. There was also a mother’s sewing class.

The first summer day camp program was offered for older children. Summer visitations, in cooperation with the Council of Churches, were also initiated. This provided opportunities for children from urban neighborhoods to stay with families who lived in rural areas and small towns. Additional opportunities for participants included a thrift shop, where used clothing and household items were sold at a small cost. Family living classes for ADC mothers were held in cooperation with the Home Extension agent.

Day care continued in two rooms, serving about 30 children. During this time, the Board of Directors was re-organized under a new constitution and bylaws. The base of authority was broadened to include more people, with built-in checks and balances in the financial operation of the agency. The membership of the Board was changed to include more neighborhood people, more non-Methodists and more men, both laity and clergy.

Yearly evaluations between staff members and the Personnel Committee were instituted. An annual general meeting was held each spring. A Program Committee was also established to evaluate the services of Community House. Public relations efforts were expanded by the creation of a slide show which was used throughout the conference.

1960's - Building A Broader Base

A huge project during this time was the construction of a new building. This was comprised of an expansion of the existing day care center by twice and the addition of other facilities. The new facilities included a craft room and three basic group meeting rooms. A large meeting room was also included in the plans and quickly became used for a wide variety of purposes. Provision was also made for enlarged offices.

During the construction , Community House occupied rented facilities for a year at the school building related to Our Lady of Sorrows Church.

While the building project was underway, programming continued to develop briskly. Students from nearby colleges and universities as well as Vista Volunteers were used. There were beginnings of community development efforts and a senior citizen program. Day care mothers saw the need for a summer program for pre-schoolers entering kindergarten. In response, Community House offered a six week summer program, which ran for two years before the advent of the now famous Head Start Program. Older children also had summer opportunities in the form of a state licensed day camp, operating at one of the county parks. High school and college students were recruited as camp counselors, creating an inter-racial staff with a balance of neighborhood young people and outside volunteers.

The Toy Store was a development that grew out of the continuing needs in our very low-income community—the search for a dignified way in which to give material things. Volunteers from churches of the city were used to operate the store. Neighborhood families, whose children were a part of the Community House program, were invited at Christmas time to choose, at no cost, gifts for their children. Each got an article of clothing and a toy.

Another first was the purchase of a station wagon with trading stamps! One of the groups that used this vehicle often was a group of girls who sang for the “Methodist” (as Community House began to be called.) The “Community Singers” filled many engagements both in and out of the city, helping greatly in raising funds for the new building and in making Community House widely known.

Refinements in the changes begun on the Board of Directors were also made. From almost all Methodists on the decision-making body, the Board became a combination of one-third Methodists, one-third neighborhood people (within the geographical limits of the service area,) and one-third individuals from the community at-large. The latter category enabled Community House to become a channel to the city of which it is a part.

1970's - Decade Of Innovation And Leadership

In 1972, Robin E. Velte became the Executive Director of United Methodist Community House. Beginning at this time, the United Methodist Community House became increasingly involved in federal funding. Child care continues as a premier program.

This long term, ongoing program was probably best known in our community. The main focus was to provide affordable, quality childcare for working poor families. The quality of the care provided was exceptional, with small group size and low teacher to child ratio, usually 1:6, far exceeding licensing standards.

Marian Anderberg, long time Child Care Director, retired in the mid 1970s. Over the next 20 years, several different Directors brought their different skills and talents into the Community House Child Care Program.

Over the years, staffing for the youth program has been quite varied and often limited. In the mid-1970s, continuing through the early 1980s, CETA staff were very important to the program. In 1979, the first, full-time youth Director was hired to coordinate all youth activities, as well as provide direct service to youth. This focused attention had a major, positive impact on the program.

In 1972, Community House began serving meals to seniors at the center. Created in response to the needs of our immediate neighborhood, this program was the first of its kind in Grand Rapids. Initially, the emphasis was on serving as many as 120 daily, hot noon meals at “the Methodist.” Between 20-30 meals a day were also delivered to homebound individuals. In 1979, service at the Center was extended to include breakfast for approximately 25 of the neediest seniors.

The Senior Meals Program was launched with private funds before government funding became available. In 1975, with the Older Americans Act, the UMCH Senior Meal Program became part of the federal network of senior citizen meals programs. Early in the program, Peggy Burns became Senior Program Director and was very important in the development of this and other senior programs. She continued with Community House for 13 years.

Two vans were purchased in 1973 and 1976 to meet the expanding need for transportation connected with UMCH programming.

In 1975, the Senior Choir was organized, providing an avenue for the participants to share their heartfelt, lively gospel music with our extended community.

1978 saw the expansion of health and advocate services. An eye clinic was begun at UMCH twice a week. In addition, a visiting nurse program started twice a month for individual health screening, consultation, referral and follow-ups. Other services included casework services to help with personal problems and concerns.

General offerings to seniors expanded to include adult basic education classes and leisure time classes of ceramics, painting, sewing, etc., as well as field trips, picnics, color tours, movies, dinner out and other fun, social activities.

Leadership in Neighborhood Development

Vivian Lewis, Program Director, guided a renewed focus on community organization. Two VISTA workers spent over a year surveying the neighborhood and identifying developing program needs. Federal funds also provided Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) staff. The Community Ombudsman Program, begun through the Fund of Reconcilement of the United Methodist Church, received two years of funding from the federal Model Cities Program.

Community House’s goal was to help create viable neighborhood organizations that would ultimately become independent from UMCH. Twenty-two block clubs were organized and provided staff assistance. In 1979, the elimination of three of the four CETA workers greatly curtailed Community House’s work with the blocks. In 1976, Conference United Methodist Women purchased a lot on an adjoining property for future expansion.

1980's - Continued Expansion Through Changing Times

Child Care Hit Hard by Recession

1980-81 were recession years, with very high unemployment and many federal budget cuts which hurt local programs for the poor. UMCH lost all of its CETA staff. At the same time, people who needed child care for their children decreased due to unemployment. At the lowest time, only 30 children were in the child care center. It was very difficult for UMCH financially. The United Methodist Women and the United Methodist Church helped UMCH weather the recession.

Curriculum during this time developed into a more child-directed than teacher-directed program. This enriched opportunities to develop intellectual, emotional, social and physical growth. Exposure to different cultures was also enhanced, with an emphasis on African American heritage, because the majority of the children in care were African American.

United Methodist Community House was very active as an advocate for child development issues and concerns. The agency collaborated actively with Kent County Coordinated Child Care (4C.) Through 4C, Community House Child Care staff participated in many and varied trainings, thereby substantially enriching the quality of the staff and the service provided.

Youth Program Makes Dramatic Gains

In 1980, the Pink Panthers Lawn Service was formed to provide opportunities for youth to learn positive work habits and life skills. They also earned money for field trips and group activities. In some years, substantial trips were taken to such places as Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Many of the youth had never been out of the Grand Rapids area before. The lawn service became an important, long-term program.

The Leadership Program, a premier, long-term youth program, began in 1983 through a grant from the United Methodist National Youth Ministry organization. Designed for older youth, the focus was on improving communication skills, self-image, problem solving and team building abilities. Youth attending regularly also got “mini jobs” which provided them a small stipend for volunteer work. The Youth Education Program began in 1985 with the hiring of a professional educator as its Director. Norma Golden joined the staff for 11 years to create a program rich in reading, language arts, math, science, tutoring, caring and fun! This addition to youth offerings represented a significant emphasis important to UMCH purpose and philosophy. It was based on the conscious decision that Community House needed to support basic education skills if the agency truly cared about the future of the youth served.

Eastminister Presbyterian Church generously invited 45 Community House children to their Camp Scott E for five days, providing a wonderful opportunity for bonding and fun in a beautiful, natural setting. This kindness was repeated for several years.

In 1987, the Junior League and United Way provided funding for four Apple computers to enhance the education center. These were the first computers in the agency used by program participants. In 1985, the Board of Directors made the difficult decision to use all the remaining CETA workers in the Youth Program, reassigning all away from the neighborhood development program activities.

From 1981 through 1984, workshops were conducted to train residents to make simple house repairs themselves. Fund were available on a matching basis. During the same period, there was an “energy crisis.” UMCH held informational meetings about conserving energy.

UMCH Wins Humanitarian Award

In 1987 , United Methodist Community House, in a partnership with three other agencies, won the United Way’s Humanitarian Award for the Collaborative Counseling Project.

Funding and Expansion

The first annual campaign, Friends of United Methodist Community House, was launched in 1982 as the beginning of an ongoing effort. The first year, 140 friends donated $8,568. Building overcrowding and expansion needs continued to be a problem. Several small parcels of land adjoining the building were purchased by the West Michigan Conference United Methodist Women for the future. As plans for a new building evolved, it was necessary to plan within the limited land available. The Board of Directors approved a feasibility study for a major building renovation and expansion in 1988. In 1989, a $2.6 million capital campaign was approved.