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'One relationship at a time': Southside Community Center aims to lift more families out of poverty in 2022

South Side Community Center Irene Lewis Wimbley.jpg
Hannah Alani
South Side Community Center, 1618 Laramie St.

Since its inception in 2019, the Southside Community Center has helped five different families move out of Peoria public housing complex and into market rate rentals.

The center has helped countless individuals receive their GED diplomas. A weekly support group gives moms a safe space to connect. A new pregnancy resource center will soon provide free medical care.

And every Tuesday during "Dinner church," Pastor Irene Lewis-Wimbley feeds her neighbors while guiding an open-ended conversation about scripture.

In an interview with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Lewis-Wimbley describes her faith-based ideas for improving the lives of South Peorians, while detailing future plans for increasing the neighborhood's affordable housing stock.

The following is a transcript of an interview that aired during All Things Peoria on Monday, November 22. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Pastor Irene Lewis-Wimbley: We can see a vision of our families being able to buy something for $8, 10,000. We invest $20,000 and they can walk away from this house with $30,000 invested, pay it down within 15 years, and have the equity and savings to be able to maintain it, and flip and buy something bigger. And begin to acquire wealth, and acquire generational wealth, which has been denied, in this … historically, red-lined district.

Hannah Alani: Your mission here is “connect, grow serve.” What do those words mean?

Irene Lewis-Wimbley: When we talk about connecting, we have our ways to connect, ministries, that we connect with the community. And we go to them often, like taking a meal to Harrison Homes on Thursdays, and doing our outreach block parties. And just using those opportunities to build relationship.

When they're ready to grow holistically, we offer what we call the Pathway of Hope grow opportunities. So whether they're coming to a moms’ group, parents’ support and education, or leadership academy, we are offering them the Pathway of Hope to grow in more intentional ways of learning the skills they need to be self-sufficient. We are raising up families and helping them get to a place that they're turning around and now able to serve. … I feel like we're really winning when folks are on their path, and then they're turning around and helping someone else get connected.

Hannah Alani: You relocated here with your two daughters. From where did you move, and how has the community received you?

Irene Lewis-Wimbley: Yes. My daughters and I, well, they didn't move here until 2020. I moved here in 2019. ... They finished their school year in Sterling, Illinois, about, not quite two hours north. ... And Sterling is my hometown, and where I'm from. I grew up in a biracial family ... sharecroppers, and migrant farmworkers. So I've seen folks work hard their whole lives, and that work ethic is in me. That skill of keeping your family together, and it is a skill, because the world is working real hard to destroy families. So I've seen that at work. And I've been the benefactor of that. I worked in social work and began to see that not everybody has that.

South Side Community Center photograph - Irene's father.jpg
Hannah Alani
South Side Community Center, 1618 Laramie St.

...I'm very blessed and very privileged, even as a BIPOC woman. My mom, Mexican. My dad, African American. I think, growing up in the 70s, in a predominantly white, rural community, to a biracial family ... that forms a lot of what we do here. So racial reconciliation, biblical reconciliation, is a cornerstone of what we teach here. ... It requires me to create a healing space, and a sacred space, to have conversations that will help us.

...Here we use CCD, Christian Community Development, principles, and one of them are "The three R's." The Relocator, that's me. I moved my daughters and myself here to the South Side. And I look for folks who have relocated to this area, and encourage folks to invest in and relocate into the South Side. We look for the Returners, folks who grew up here, left the community, but come back, and have seen the world, have a different worldview, and can bring ideas and resources from their perspective. And the Remnant, the Remainders — the ones who've never left, who are really the most important and take the longest to build relationship with, because they've seen a lot of things. And people say a lot of things. And agencies come and go. Services come and go. People, programs come and go. But they're still here. And they don't have the privilege to drive away from this area. It's definitely important to center those voices.

Hannah Alani: How did your 11 years in social work shape your perspective on community development?

Irene Lewis-Wimbley: Man, do we have some passion here in Peoria. I've never been in a community with so much generosity. ... But we are highly siloed. We do not work together. Fortunately, I was given the experience to work for a system of care grant for children. The difference being it was a four-county system of care. Highly rural. One of our counties only has, Carroll County only has one stoplight in the whole county. But we have issues like … suicide and substance abuse and mental health issues, just like they do in Chicago. It's crazy. But so, working and doing more with less was my job. And getting folks to work together. And eliminate silos. And go on projects and do things and serve together, was my job. So I bring that here as well. I speak public health. I speak juvenile justice. I speak healthcare, medical home. And education has its own lingo. So that has helped me find out who the players are very quickly.

South Side Community Center computer lab.jpg
Hannah Alani
South Side Community Center, 1618 Laramie St.

...I think the principles that are faith-based, are the most effective. I felt for a long time that I'm helping to maintain the problem and help people cope with diagnosis. When I myself know, I have experienced freedom from poverty and lack, I have been able to take advantage of opportunities.

Really, I go all the way back to my Uncle Frank, and my love for Paul Simon. I love Simon and Garfunkel. My mom got me tickets for my 16th birthday. And I got to visit my uncle, stay with him on college campus — Go Hawkeyes! — and that experience ... I never dreamed that I could go to college, until I was had that experience. ... I had no grid, I often say, for what my life could be. ... I wasn't really looking forward to life. And that's about the same amount of effort I put into my education, because I didn't see any value in it.

South Side Community Center baby room painting.jpg
Hannah Alani
South Side Community Center, 1618 Laramie St.

When I began to begin to dream, and see that my life could be different, because of some different exposures that my family made sure I had ... how many kids don't ever have that experience? How many generations of families have never had those experiences? How do we begin to enrich their lives? And so, I believe that people will make the right decision when they have all the information. If you're making decisions based off a very limited worldview and perspective ... you're almost doomed to fail. ... I think it was Maya Angelou, who I also got to see speak at the University of Iowa. One of my heroes. Used to say that, "If people knew better, they'd do better. Who's going to come alongside and help them learn better?"

Hannah Alani: Can you tell our listeners a bit about some of the families that you've helped get housing outside Harrison Homes?

Irene Lewis-Wimbley: Oo my favorite thing – I gush when I talk about our mamas! We have moms who have two kids, or one child. And we have moms that have seven, and also other family members’ children, often. One of our first moms is such an inspiration to me. Met her at dinner church and she was at the rock bottom of her life. Her significant other had went to jail. She had had a car accident, totaled her car, was left with three kids, and was pregnant. So desperate, “What am I going to do?” But begin to believe, “What do you want to do?” And dream about? “I want to be a nurse.” So, she got a job in housekeeping at a nursing home, looking in a CNA classes. And because of her care and her personality, she has moved up the ranks in housekeeping and hospitality, and is now a supervisor. So, she is not sure where her path is with nursing. But she does know that she's in fair market value housing. And does not want to let her children think that this is the end, either. And has goals to save, to buy her first home.

South Side Community Center pregancy room2.jpg
Hannah Alani
The pregnancy resources room inside Southside Community Center, 1618 Laramie St.

…Our second mom, one of my favorites as well. Helping her move out of her apartment in the Harrison Homes, out of PHA. She wasn't able to control her heat. Both of these moms have pictures now of them adjusting the thermostat in their apartment.

…The issue is there's no housing stock on the South End. Three of our volunteers that have purchased homes in the last three years are now homeowners paying taxes. And only one of them were able to find a house on the South End.

Hannah Alani: What is the best way our listeners can help you do what you do?

Irene Lewis-Wimbley: Come down and help us build off ramps and be in relationship with somebody. A family, invest in them, and make it a lifestyle. … We can see an entire community be transformed within less than a generation.

…But I know that that's not feasible for everybody. The next best thing would be, go to our website, and give. We'll be able to purchase necessary things that we need to be able to hopefully build a building, but also build indigenous leaders, and provide job opportunities.

…We are dreaming big. If you are interested in housing, and know about housing, how do we begin to build a group of folks who can invest their time and begin to flip houses? … If we can build a tax base, of homeowners, we can literally change the budget at City Council to be able to have money for roads, have money for the schools. … My challenge is for folks to see how the church, especially, can reinvest in places that have seen the effects of the injustice, de jure segregation, and laws that have kept south side in this position.

South Side Community Center Irene Lewis Wimbley inside close up.jpg
Hannah Alani
South Side Community Center, 1618 Laramie St.

Irene Lewis-Wimbley is a member of the Quality Housing sub-committee of the Peoria City-County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity.

The Southside Community Center is located at 1618 S. Laramie St. The faith-based organization is affiliated with Pekin First Nazarene and partners with PEACE Church, Southside Christian Academy and others.

Learn more about the Southside Community Center — including ways to volunteer and donate — online. Follow the Southside Community Center on Facebook for updates on events and programming.

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