Church blesses neighbors with 'La Casita' PDF Print E-mail

What started as a collective group of nonprofits coming together to create bring programs and resources to the Lansing Neighborhood has transformed into a neighborhood taking care of its own.

La Casita, which means little house in Spanish, is a place where neighbors can meet one another, get help, borrow books, be active and learn. It’s tucked next to Holy Cross Lutheran Church, by the intersection of Sunnyview Road and Lansing Avenue NE.

It emerged from discussions among nonprofits around the Fostering Hope Initiative in 2009, which aimed to cuts the need for foster care by strengthening families and neighborhoods, said Carrie Maheu, of Salem Leadership Foundation.

La Casita started as a leap of faith. There wasn’t a budget to begin a resource center, but the church was willing to donate the building, and Mano a Mano and Salem Leadership Foundation agreed to provide resources and staff.

“We never stopped to think we couldn’t do it,” Maheu said. “The partnerships were built to do that.”

If someone had said they couldn’t start the project until they had a coordinator or a budget, it may never have happened, Maheu said. All of La Casita’s partners had the same vision: to make this neighborhood robust and family-friendly.

“It’s that aspect of all of us coming together and supporting it,” she said.

Four years after La Casita opened its doors, it still doesn’t have a budget, but it’s been able to accomplish a surprising amount.

Kathy Martell, with Delta Kappa Gamma, created a one-room library that allows neighborhood children to check out books. She also reads to children who take classes with Willamette Education Service District across the street.

La Casita regularly hosts exercise classes, lets children play basketball in the church gym, hosts summer gardening camps and opens its doors for other nonprofits to teach classes.

Neighbors can pop in looking for resources. Since the neighborhood has many Spanish speakers, people often stop by when they don’t understand a letter they received, said Maria Lemus, La Casita coordinator.

That low-key, non-agency feel lessens the barriers to asking for help. “It’s supposed to be like walking into your neighbor’s house,” Maheu said.

Over the years, the partners have brought a variety of programs to the center. Some worked, while others weren’t what the community wanted.

Now, the neighbors have taken ownership of the house. They suggest program ideas, volunteer without being asked, take responsibility for keeping the place clean and generally treat it like their own homes.

When the weekly coffee hour was created, it was a structured time for women to come and talk about their lives over a cup of java. The women were all strangers referred by case managers.

Over time, the ladies who showed up made it into a potluck lunch with people coming and going as they were able.

Lemus is there in case the women need anything, but she’s treated just like one of the ladies. She’s a friend, a neighbor.

If one of the ladies has a friend she knows could use some support, she invites her to coffee, Lemus said.

Through La Casita, Maheu said the partners did what it set out to do: They created a friendly house neighbors could use and brought resources spread throughout the community to a place residents could access right next door.

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