How The Community House Network Became Home For Many In This Peoria Neighborhood
When a former neuroscientist saw unmet needs in her neighborhood, she offered up her garage as a place where kids could gather safely and express themselves artistically.
Three years later, that's grown into the Community House Network, offering everything from job skills training to 12-step addiction treatment programs to her neighborhood.
Dr. Abigail Larrison has always had an interest in education. She's worked at major universities, approaching education from a brain expert's vantage point. But she finds the hands-on teaching that happens in her Peoria home more rewarding than traditional academia.
The Community House Network began with the Art Garage back in 2018. The detached garage behind Larrison's house at 800 West Thrush is a palette for any kid in the neighborhood willing to pick up a brush.
"I look at the art not as simply like developing some skill in art," Larrison said. "I look at it as art as a form of self expression. And that self expression leading to self awareness."
For Larrison, the key organizing principle is non-coercion. Kids must sign in when they arrive, but they're not compelled to come on a regular basis or stay for any length of time after showing up.
"It's a different model. And I just like to see it in action," she said.
There are a few ground rules. Kindness is a must. Anyone who says something unkind about another is challenged to follow up on that remark with three nice things about that person.
"It's about creating community here," Larrison said. "Even in the project for the kids, if the kids know each other, they're less likely to have any kind of violent aggression towards each other."
Bridget Meier is the director of youth programming at the Community House. She's upfront about the challenges many of the children in the neighborhood face.
"Our kids are defiant kids. So a lot of the times, like, they have parents, but they don't really have parents," she said. "And sometimes they do have parents who are trying their best. But there's a need that's not being met."
Larrison says part of the need is just asking kids questions...and listening to their answers.
"It was almost as if no one had ever asked them about their views on violence. And once I asked them that question, they were very clearly able to articulate that they felt that being violent was a very valid solution to problems and that, if you didn't fight, there was something wrong with you," she said. "So there's something wrong when we don't know that that's what our kids are thinking. And there's absolutely a need for us to make direct efforts to try to change that thinking."
Meier says it's her role to stand as a pillar of affection for kids suffering from the lack of a stable support system which can lead to these kinds of perceptions.
"I've heard some things from these kids that are very dark and detrimental. And they just spill it out of their mouth so casually," Meier said. "And that's the kind of thing that we take and decide, okay, how would this help them find who they are?"
Kelly Beal is the Community House's assistant director. She's also the founder of Keegan's Krew, an anti-bullying initiative she founded in 2017 after her 11-year-old son took his own life.
Beal's vision to create a "safe haven" from bullying merged with Larrison's concept when she ran into red tape.
"So for me, being able to see those things realized has been really exciting," Beal said.
Larrison says the Community House Network is moving into an "emerging" phase which takes its activities beyond the Art Garage.
The house on Thrush Avenue now hosts a variety of creative learning for kids and adults alike. She's also purchased a nearby house at the corner of Sheridan and Thrush, where people can access services like 12-step substance abuse programs.
Larrison says the neighborhood desperately needs that kind of help. She can speak from experience on the value of substance abuse programming at the Community House. She herself is seven years in recovery from alcohol abuse.
"It has been a life changing journey. And I cannot say enough about how powerful it is to make a decision to live drug and alcohol free, and how much that changes the direction of your life path," she said.
Bridget Meier says they're also starting up groups for older youths. One is geared towards teenage girls who have aged out of the "Art Garage" program.
"They want to start like having an open and safe space to teen girls who may have been exposed to assault or drug addiction, or just need to learn how to come into themselves and really appreciate themselves for who they are," Meier said.
There's an effort to assemble a similar group for teen boys - but Meier said that presents its own set of challenges.
"A lot of times boys do not like to talk about feelings. So they need a place where it's okay to understand that like you don't have to talk about feelings getting mushy, but you can talk about how you had a bad day," she said.
Larrison is also converting a two stall garage into a new "shop co-op" to help people gain job skills.
"We have a project that's emerging that's focused on building skills in the trades," she said. "Right now we're starting with working with the youth, but in our formational documents, we also have something called our 'second career.'"
Second Career is geared towards people with criminal records who may struggle to find job opportunities.
Larrison says she's open to providing space for whoever needs it, be it youth services or substance abuse support.
"My goal is to build local connections within the community," she said. "So ultimately, I want to see participation, where, I always say, within a four block radius."
Beal, of Keegan's Krew, says she's already noticed a difference in the kids they work with.
"It's been amazing to see the growth in the kids just since I've been there. And you know, like I said, I've only been there a few months," Beal said. "So I know Abigail is thrilled to see over the last few years. Just the change in the kids getting some sort of, I don't know... positive attention, I guess."
Larrison says she got a chilly reception in the neighborhood when she first started hosting Community House activities. But that's changed today, with people now acting friendlier after she's worked to gain trust and buy-in over the last three years.
"There's no doubt in my mind that these kids feel safe, they feel comfortable, they start to see themselves as capable and competent. And it's good. And I mean, I don't want to take full credit for everything, but I can just see the influence that this has had," she said.
Azaria is one example of that influence.
She was at the house on Thrush Avenue during the interview with Larrison, and she's served as a sort of goodwill ambassador both for other kids in the neighborhood, and for the Community House's efforts.
She wanted to share this message with WCBU's listeners: "Be you. don't make nobody... don't make people act like (you're) not really you."
For Larrison, Azaria is just one of many success stories of making a small difference in her Center Bluff neighborhood, one person at a time.
"The goal is to just keep holding the space for them to be able to see themselves as capable and competent and lovable and a part of the world that they're in, and not to escape or get trapped in the games of what a lot of our society projects as valuable, but to really tap into who they are and to love themselves for that," she said.