Neighborhood Services Center: Lifting up the community for 50 years12/27/2021 09:27PM ● By Steven Hoffman
“It’s been a rough couple of years. First COVID then the tornado,” an Oxford resident could be overheard saying at a local market.
For those who have lost loved ones to COVID, or those that suffered losses during the recent tornado in the community, that is an understatement.
It has been a rough couple of years.
And while most of us don’t want to ask what is next, we can feel comfort that the heart of the community, the Neighborhood Services Center (NSC), continues its mission.
NSC recently celebrated 50 years of service to the community and one woman remembered it fondly.
Connie Winchester, the first director of NSC, emphasized that, “It took partnerships” to start an organization that would provide help to people in the community who needed it the most.
As Winchester recalled, “It began, when late in the 1960s, the Oxford Area Civic Association, which was the local United Way organization, appointed several of its members to a Human Needs Study Committee. Its purpose was to explore the needs of the community and to see if the local and county agencies funded by Civic Association funds were responding to community needs and problems. The Rev. T. Norman Mason from St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Dr. Frank Wilson, retired Dean of Lincoln University, Helen McNeil, Executive Secretary of the Civic Association, and I, a mom at home with two pre-school children, were given the charge to carry on this study.”
The Committee was expanded to include Don Savitch, a local businessman, Betty Harris, Home/School Coordinator for the Oxford School District, Jim Syphers from the Lincoln University Institute of Community Affairs, Barbara Sheetz, a local resident already coordinating some volunteer transportation, plus several representatives from community churches. It really took a village. And in case you haven’t noticed, Oxford and the surrounding area really cares about its people.
As the committee progressed, professional back-up was provided by the Chester County Health & Welfare Council and the Chester County Assistance Office. The group met for about a year and a half in the community room of Commonwealth Bank at the corner of Third and Hodgson streets. They focused on daycare, affordable housing, health care, education, transportation, employment concerns and invited resource people knowledgeable in those areas to meet with them. Ironically, those same issues continue to be a priority today.
Their goal was to provide a “directory of services” for people in the community seeking answers to their questions. However, it quickly became apparent that a directory would not be sufficient. That was when the idea of a coordinating center emerged, specifically a place to call or to go to with questions.
Eventually, they located an empty office at 35 N. Third Street, where NSC continues to this day. They began with a starter fund of $1000 to cover six months of rent and the phone. Winchester recalled, “The Health & Welfare Council, churches and some individuals came through and we were in business.”
Within a year, the agency became busier and busier. They took steps to incorporate, establishing by-laws and forming a Board of Directors to replace the Operating Committee. They also sought funding to acquire part-time staff to supplement the volunteers.
Donna Sims, formerly a nurse in Dr. Holcombe’s office, became a field worker and started home visiting and hours were extended to 9 to 12 and 1 to 5. Meanwhile, Winchester was hired as a part-time director. Her own children were in school and she never went back to teaching in Oxford, which she had been doing after her husband, Professor Dick Winchester, took a position at Lincoln University in 1961. County agencies used a second room to deliver their services right here in Oxford, which was Family Service, Homemakers Service Children’s Services, Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, Planned Parenthood, Legal Aid, and County Board of Assistance. These agencies came to NSC in Southern Chester County, in a very part-time manner, in the beginning. The Center also had a food pantry.
Decades later, there has been growth in programs and space. The NSC board purchased the house to 35 North Third Street, which was thanks to an unexpected estate gift from a Ware Presbyterian resident in 1997. It was decided to connect the two houses with new construction, and NSC sought a block grant fro the Chester County Office of Housing and Community Development.
Many Directors came and went, each one moving the agency forward, each an integral part of the community.
Winchester admitted she had no idea what the center would blossom into.
Fast forward to April of 2020 when Rachel Lebus took over as director of NSC.
“It’s not easy to introduce yourself to a community during a pandemic,” Lebus said.
The first people she talked to, of course, were Connie and Dick Winchester. She met the two of them in the park, wearing masks, and listening to the history of the center.
Lebus explained, “It was very enjoyable to me. Winchester is one of first people I met. I sat with her and Dick at the park. We wore masks and I talked with her about the history of the agency. She came prepared. It’s incredible what she has done. One thing I find interesting all these years later is the crux of who NSC is really hasn’t changed from the beginning. It continues to be the central location for people to access services in Oxford. That connection with other agencies, being able to offer space for other agencies to come from the county is vital to this area. Their plan was unique and forward thinking. They were able to start something that continues, and hasn’t dramatically changed. It says something about the way programs were designed. It was done intelligently and strategically.”
Lebus continued, “It was challenging, to say the least, coming in during a pandemic. I felt like it was important as a newcomer to make connections. In the middle of a pandemic that was difficult to do. Just over the last couple of months I’ve been able to meet people in person.”
When she came into her position, there was a demand for everything because so many local families were being hurt by the pandemic and the economic shutdowns.
“One of the early things I did was to increase the cap of how much we could give to people. I had to adjust that to better serve the community,” Lebus said.“We were seeing a slow increase at first, then needs spiked in late summer to early fall, and then tapered off again. In June of this year, we contacted the Department of Community Development. We had a contract with them for emergency rental and utility needs. They gave us more funding.”
Then a tornado hit the community, severely impacting Wiltshire Development. Lebus contacted the Oxford Chamber of Commerce and the two worked together with the community to help those in need.
Lebus said the community was very generous and they are still in the process of distributing those funds.
“I learned that in this community people are more concerned with their neighbor than themselves,” she explained.
She said some insurance companies were slow in responding, and she has found that people don’t really like to ask for help.
“It created an interesting challenge for us,” she said.
Lebus is still playing catch-up. She is focusing now on planning fundraising events, building relationships with the staff and the community.
“So much just got pushed back,” she said.
Things have not really gotten calmer. She explained that over the last several months things have picked up.
“We started the emergency rental program and had to hire people to help with that. That is taking a lot of time, energy and effort,” she explained. “We had moments here and there to work with the staff. We hired a food pantry manager in June to dedicate a whole person to that role. We have plans to expand hours so people who work can come in. We’d like to expand to evenings and Saturday. There is a misconception that people that use our services aren’t working. They are. Most people that come in have some sort of job. Minimum wage is some of the problem, but it’s the cost of housing, and childcare that really hurt the family budget.”
According to Lebus, “Chester County is an incredibly expensive place to live. There is also very little to no public transportation in this part of the county.”
NSC provides funding for rent, mortgage, and utilities. Lebus said the biggest challenge now is they need donations.
“The community has been incredibly generous throughout COVID. We get checks every day, but the money quickly goes out,” she explained. “The community is extremely generous, I hope they can continue to give as they have.”
Lebus feels that most businesses that have survived are going back to normal. But she is aware that is subject to change, along with new variations of COVID.
“The challenge is finding time to ponder the nature of non-profit work. At the end of the day, I would say the answer is fundraising events, but we must do that with new safety restrictions. How do we get people together safely? Will we lose donors if we are not safe enough?Amidst all of this, valuable staff members are retiring,” she said.
Both Lebus and Winchester mentioned the departure of Carla Brown. Brown is retiring after 34 years of dedication to NSC.
“Her experience with NSC is invaluable. She is a valuable staff member. She has such in-house institutional knowledge of people. Her departure will leave a huge hole. I’m so glad I had some time to learn from her,” Lebus said.
Lebus confirmed they will do some internal shifting and will be hiring a program director.
“We are plugging along with our emergency assistance program. We will get our second round of emergency rental assistance funds. We have to find out what the ‘new normal’ is,” she said.
Always at the top of the list of concerns is confidentiality.
“Nothing is more important than the confidentiality of our clients,” Lebus added. “Our work isn’t always visible, by design we have to be respectful of people’s privacy. Sometimes that can give the impression we are not continuing to work hard to serve our community. We quietly do it but it must be done while respecting privacy.”
Everyone in Oxford and the surrounding area has their own story of how they helped or were helped by NSC. Churches, businesses, individuals wishing to remain anonymous, nearly everyone has been comforted by the healing hands of NSC at one time or another. The mission of NSC is a noble one. They empower people experiencing a crisis or sudden hardship by providing direct assistance and/or connecting those people to available resources.
If you want to be reminded of the goodness of people, a community, and the world, check out the NSC website at www.oxfordnsc.org.
No matter who you are, where you are in your life, your status, or financial resources, chances are good that NSC can brighten your world this holiday season or in the coming year.