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Why the Dream Center is pitching a home for teen mothers in Tazewell County

The Dream Center Peoria building in downtown Peoria. Cars fill the parking lot.
Collin Schopp
Dream Center Peoria is proposing a new program called "Zoe House," where four to five teenage mothers can learn parenting skills over 18 months in a supportive environment.

Dream Center Peoria is looking to establish a new service for teen mothers in Tazewell County.

The Zoe House program would provide a home for four to five teen moms and their babies. They would go through an 18 month program, with staff overseeing the house 24/7. The proposed site is a roughly acre plot of land on the outskirts of Washington, in the general area of Nofsinger Road and Liberty Lane.

The teens would have to go through a thorough application and questionnaire process to be included in the program.

“We want to make sure that we gather all of the pertinent information, because we want girls that will be a great fit for the program,” said Denise Bailey, Dream Center’s director of development and teen moms. “And that will have the best chances of success. In the long run, we want this to be a long-term life change.”

Parenting is a broad subject and there are many individual skills involved. Bailey says the Zoe House won’t only have its own programming, but help connect the residents with the already existent resources throughout the Greater Peoria Area.

Examples include: budgeting, cooking, shopping and making healthy dietary decisions, arranging childcare and transportation, as well as just seeing examples of healthy family relationships and dynamics.

Bailey says the Zoe House will help provide transportation throughout the young mothers’ stay. All staff and volunteers will be subject to background checks.

There’s also careful consideration factored into the location selection. The program was originally pitched for a Sheridan Road property in Peoria. Bailey said she withdrew that zoning application after learning required upgrades would cost as much as $100,000.

For reference, Bailey expects the program to require approximately $190,000 annually.

“So what we are looking at is a little bit more rural and country feeling,” said Bailey. “And for me personally, I think that's a plus because there's something about being able to be in nature that is soothing and calming. And we want to offer that for our young moms and their babies.”

At a meeting of the Tazewell County zoning board of appeals, some community members voiced their opposition to the project.

“We want to be sensitive to those concerns,” said Bailey. “Because if you don't understand what the program is, and what types of girls will be living there, and how it will be handled, you may not understand how it will all play out.”

Bailey says the Dream Center has done research on similar programs across the country, and spoken with the people who manage them, to ensure they’re using best practices for the safety of everyone involved. The home will have a security system with motion sensors, any outside visitors for the residents will be received off site at local churches and they plan to have an open line of communication with the county sheriff department.

“And we also go back to the application and interview process,” said Bailey. “That we want to very carefully screen and only accept girls that are there for reasons that will allow them to succeed.”

Bailey goes on to address property values. She says an analysis of 50 studies found no direct correlation between programs like the Zoe House and declining property values. She also says a licensed therapist will be available to the girls for any mental health concerns.

Bailey says it’s important the young mothers have the space and freedom to walk the property, as well.

“We are not forcing anything on any of the girls,” she said. “It is not an isolation tactic to have them out of the city.”

Bailey believes there’s a distinct need for a program like Zoe House. She says birth rates in the Tri-County area reflect a population of teen mothers who could be served by the program. Shelters, she says, don’t fully meet the needs of these mothers, or provide an ideal environment to raise their new child in.

“We don't want to recreate or duplicate resources that are already available,” Bailey said. “So we've talked with multiple agencies that are already offering parenting classes and diapers and wipes, and you know, clothing and things like that.”

They’ve also talked with Illinois Central College and OSF Healthcare about potential training programs and entry level job opportunities.

The zoning board of appeals did end up approving the rezoning request. The Tazewell County Board is set to consider it at their regular meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.