A groundswell of support is taking shape on the South Side, one of the poorest zip codes in the country.
South Side Mission takes a holistic view of community development on Peoria’s South Side. The vibrancy of a community can be measured by its civic pride, physical health, employability and faith. Fortunately, we have many partners in this goal.
The new LISC chapter in town is quietly working behind the scenes on some big new initiatives. Thrive Capital did some important work for a time, while faith-based efforts like the Nehemiah Project and His Helping Hands continue to perform yeoman’s work down here with little fanfare. There is a groundswell of support taking shape on the South Side—which desperately needs it.
According to U.S. Census data, 61605, or the “South Side,” is one of the 100 poorest zip codes in all of America. Along with poverty, come crime and underperforming schools.
Now, let me share the good news. Real progress is being made to lay the building blocks of a vibrant 61605: civic pride, physical health, employability and faith. And South Side Mission is thrilled to be there daily with our trowel and mortar!
South Side Mission’s first strategy is the Adopt-a-Block program, which focuses on a community’s needs, block by block. South Side Mission works with 27 churches to conduct Adopt-a-Block efforts in the 61605 zip code. When a church adopts a block, they visit both sides of the street at least two Saturday mornings a month, making lives brighter in tangible ways, from distributing food to shoveling snow.
Each spring, our Adopt-a-Block captains share “big-ticket” home repair needs from their blocks; we then attack up to 60 projects on those blocks in the coming year. We call this ministry Hope Builders. A strong partnership between the Mission, the Metro Peoria Baptist Association, L.S. Building Products and the City of Peoria, Hope Builders blesses dozens of low-income homeowners each year with no-cost, “big-ticket” home repairs. Since 2005, Hope Builders has completed more than 300 projects in the 61605 zip code. This program builds not only hope, but civic pride. There have been many instances in which the homeowners surrounding a beautifully upgraded Hope Builders home have made improvements to their own properties in order to keep up with the neighbors!
Civic pride also takes root in the form of landscaping improvements. I have a dream that Martin Luther King Drive will someday bloom along its entire route with tulips and daffodils in the spring. That MacArthur Highway will be known for its red maples in the fall. That Western Avenue’s springtime cherry trees will rival those of Washington DC. It can happen. A partnership between Hoerr Nursery and Northwoods Community Church, which has adopted seven blocks on West Malone, resulted in 80 flowering pear trees being planted three years ago. Do yourself a favor this spring… drive down Malone from Western to Laramie and take in the festival for the senses that 80 flowing pears deliver. South Side Mission, for its part, also takes civic pride seriously. Two of our facilities on the South Side—the Laramie Street headquarters and the Benevolence Center—have won Peoria City Beautiful awards in the past seven years.
Our beloved 61605 also has some physical health issues. A sad fact is that often the poorest and unhealthiest citizens of any zip code are its senior citizens. So we hired a Registered Nurse, Robin Winfrey, who, along with her team of volunteer nurses and clergy, visit up to 800 times a year, making house calls to seniors in 61605. Robin and her team organize prescriptions, conduct non-invasive health screenings, and provide food, companionship and advocacy.
Complicating the acute health issues of the South Side is the fact that the majority of the zip code is in a food desert—a place where a resident is not within walking distance of quality, inexpensive, fresh produce. Residents of food deserts often eat from convenience stores, which are filled with expensive, high-fat, high-salt, high-cholesterol items that contribute to heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and childhood obesity. To combat this, South Side Mission has begun an urban gardening program in which we provide Mission-grown fresh vegetables almost year-round with the help of our greenhouses and community gardens.
Finding a job isn’t as easy as it used to be. So we’re training unemployed and underemployed South Siders for jobs in which one can make a living wage—jobs that are not likely to be sent overseas or disappear with technology. South Side Mission employment training schools provide 12-week certificate programs, internships and job placement in fields like culinary arts, logistics and housekeeping, with future schools planned for trade-apprenticeship preparation and home healthcare. These schools have provided hope and a new life for many who had previously thought they were beyond employability.
Any valuable enterprise is destined to fail without Spirit! Indwelling all that we do is a solid faith in Christ. The Bible, in Isaiah 58, says that God’s people will be “restorers of streets with dwellings.” We take that as the underpinning that guides this work. In the process, we are able to share our faith with those on the South Side who desperately need hope. And when they find that faith and hope—watch out… the sky’s the limit for them! We happen to believe that the sky is the limit for 61605, too!
Others outside the area are beginning to catch the vision as well. World Magazine and the Acton Institute have recognized South Side Mission as one of the top 10 grassroots ministries in the U.S., and there are many opportunities to help. South Side Mission does not receive a dime of government support, instead relying on prayers, volunteerism and donations from more than 25,000 people each year. I invite you to get involved as well. Call me for a VIP tour, and I’ll even have our culinary school make lunch for us! iBi
Phil Newton is executive director of South Side Mission. For more information, visit southsidemission.org or call (309) 676-4604.