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Chester County Press

A sanctuary for those who need a helping hand

11/18/2014 01:33PM ● By Steven Hoffman

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

A single mother walked into the offices of the Neighborhood Services Center desperate for help.

After a sudden death in her family that resulted in the immediate loss of income, she could no longer pay her rent. She was facing eviction and didn’t know where a helping hand would come from.

A case manager arranged for the neighborhood Services Center to pay her rent for the month, and the woman was also able to get some food from the food cupboard to keep her family fed. The woman was referred to another agency so that she could receive grief counseling services. For this woman and thousands of others, the Neighborhood Services Center was there during a day of need. Since the day it opened on Nov. 1, 1971, the Neighborhood Services Center has been a central location where southern Chester County residents can utilize health services and social services that help them meet their basic needs.

Today, the Neighborhood Services Center provides help to an average of 775 households each month.

“When somebody comes to the Neighborhood Services Center, it’s a sanctuary. We’re trying to help,” explained Randy Cripps, the current chair of the board of directors, at the Neighborhood Services Center’s annual meeting on Nov. 6.

According to executive director Cheryl McConnell, the organization is seeing more people with more needs than at any point in the organization’s 44-year history.

“We’ve had a continual increase in the number of people coming to the food cupboard,” McConnell said. “We’re busy all the time now. It’s just constant throughout the year, and we’re seeing people come with problems that we haven’t dealt with before.”

In many cases, people come to the Neighborhood Services Center in search of the most basic needs—including food, shelter, and clothing. During the last year, the center met 1,954 requests for food, a six-percent increase from the year before. Having a food cupboard in the community is critically important, as many families live on the edge of poverty.

The Neighborhood Services Center also met emergency assistance requests of 125 clients, making payment arrangements for heat, housing, utility, transportation, and health needs. Case managers referred another 211 emergency requests to other agencies for assistance.

The center also responded to 227 requests for clothing, which can be critically important, especially in the winter months. The Operation Warm Program supplied winter coats to 192 children.

The center also has the Neighborhood Thrift Shop in Oxford, which is overseen by two part-time managers and a dedicated group of volunteers. The shop sells donations from local community residents, including clothing, household items, and furniture. Last year, the shop raised $16,000 for Neighborhood Services Center programs.

The Neighborhood Center staff also provided general assistance, which can be anything from filling out forms, translating material, making phone calls, more than 11,000 times during the last fiscal year.

During the holidays, the center organizes an Adopt-a-Family outreach that last year had 30 community sponsors, including individuals and groups, who adopted 128 children. Parents from an additional 47 families were able to pick out gifts for 112 children from the center’s two Christmas gift rooms. These gifts included new donations from the community like knitted hats, mittens, toys, games, books, sports equipment, and clothing.

Between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014, the center assisted 1,882 people through its information and referral program for health and human services. Many people needing help in the southern part of the county are far removed from agencies that could provide assistance. The Neighborhood Services Center rents space in the building to county health and social service agencies like the Domestic Violence of Chester County, Family Services of Chester County, Maternal and Child Health Consortium, Crime Victims Center of Chester County.

At the Neighborhood Services Center’s annual meeting, Carrie Freeman, the CEO of the United Way of Southern Chester County, served as a guest speaker, talking about the growing problem of homelessness among families in the area.

In 2011, Freeman explained, the Kennett Consolidated School District had 96 children whose families were homeless at one point or another. That number increased to 167 in 2012.

“And that’s just homeless school-age children,” Freeman noted.

She told the audience about the formation of Family Promise of Southern Chester County, which is currently being organized.

“It is a wonderful program that has been proven nationally,” said Freeman. “We hope to have this up and running in 2015.”

Family Promise of Chester County would serve as the organizing entity that would establish a partnership among 13 churches in the southern Chester County area that would agree to house homeless families one week at a time for four times a year. Church members would provide meals to families, who would also have access to a day center where they could shower, do laundry, and have a temporary home base so that they can secure permanent housing and work.

Freeman concluded her remarks by calling the Neighborhood Services Center a wonderful partner.

At the Nov. 6 meeting, Neighborhood Services Center officials welcomed three new board members: Catherine Buck, Beth Dolinger, and April Elizabeth Herr.

They also recognized the contributions of retiring board members Ann Shoemaker, Sandy Hale, Gene Herr, and Cripps.

McConnell said that the Neighborhood Services Center has always benefited from having a dedicated and talented group of people to serve as volunteers and board members.

“We are always blessed with a wonderful group of people,” said McConnell.

The efforts of the Neighborhood Services Center’s staff was also recognized throughout the annual meeting.

“The staff,” said Herr, “does so much for the community.”

Neighborhood Services Center officials also recognized A.B.A.T.E. of Chester County for the 25 years of support to the food cupboard. Each summer, A.B.A.T.E. does a benefit motorcycle run that helps the center get through the summer months.

More than 400 families come to the center for food assistance each year, and the need is growing. One of the Neighborhood Services Center’s largest projects in the near future will be a planned expansion of the food cupboard. Phase one of the expansion includes the reconfiguration of the first floor of the building and the expansion of the current food cupboard into the room next to it. Phase two will be to rebuild a small rear room to create more space for storage and distribution of food.

The neighborhood Services Center is located at 35 North Third Street in Oxford. The telephone number is 610-932-8557.

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