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Rebrand Is Just The Start For East Bluff Community Center's Expansion Efforts

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Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
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The East Bluff Community Center's new logo, displayed at 512 E. Kansas.

The East Bluff Community Center's new brand isn't just cosmetic. It's the first step in an expanded commitment to positively engage with youth in the Peoria neighborhood.

Tim Shelley recently sat down with the EBCC's new executive director, Kari Jones, about their new push towards more youth engagement and outreach in the neighborhood.

Tim Shelley: Tell me a little bit about yourself. I guess you've been here for less than a year. I think about six months. And a bit about your background and how you came here to Peoria.

Kari Jones: Yeah, actually, this month, end of February, marks exactly six months for me at the East Bluff Community Center. And I do have a little bit of an interesting path that brought me here. I grew up in St. Louis. So I am from the Midwest. But I left, and thought I was never going to come back to the Midwest. And then I came back for graduate school at Western. And my husband's from Texas. We were going to move back to Texas, but he found a job that he loved. And so I started looking.

And the whole time we've been in Central Illinois area, we've loved Peoria. It's always been our go-to place for any kind of social activities prior to COVID. And outdoor activities and things like that. So when I saw this position come open, and a chance to really become part of the Peoria community, and learned more about the East Bluff and all of the cool things about this neighborhood, it just seemed like the perfect fit for me. And it really has been it's been an amazing first six months, and I've never felt like I was in the right place more than I do right now.

TS: Why does this feel like the right place?

KJ: Well, my background is a little bit mixed as well. As far as education and previous work experience, I've done a lot of community development work. I also have my Master's in Public Health, and really with the focus on social determinants of health, on the type of factors that affect people's health, like poverty, or the the neighborhood that you live in, and things like that.

And so with that background, and it just this felt like the right place to be as far as getting to do a lot of community development work, getting to do a lot of coordinating. And though we don't run programs, here, we do a lot of strategic planning with other agencies to bring in programs, and I have a lot of experience with program planning, evaluating how the programs are going. So I get to do a lot of that here. And I get to look a lot at how the East Bluff wellness is impacted by the East Bluff Community Center being here.

TS: You're kind of filling big shoes. I know, Jim Combs. I was here last time. You saw the love this community has for him. So to come in here. I mean tell me just a little bit about kind of the direction you've tried to take since coming in here?

KJ: Well, first and foremost, we want to always honor the foundations of how the East Bluff Community Center came to be. And it was community members who really cared. And we're dedicated to improving and strengthening this neighborhood. And Jim Combs, at the lead, making that happen.

And so this group of community members just gave of their time. It was completely volunteer-run, just came out of the goodness of their hearts to get this place started. And get it to where it needed to be where it was ready to take the next step to not be completely volunteer-run. Because as much as all of that love and hard work was sufficient at the start to keep this place running, the demands on the center have become more. There's always more people who want to use it, there's always more that can be done here, there's always repairs that need to be done in a 100-year-old building.

So there was a need to become more, more of a professional organization rather than a volunteer organization. So the board began this strategic plan a couple years ago, where they wanted to get to the point where they were able to have a full time paid executive director, who could be here to take us on those next steps of our journey.

Like I said, we're not trying to change anything about the mission or the love that has gone into this community center. But it's things like getting like what we did, a marketing brand launch. We have a recognizable brand now that we hope will bring more awareness to the community center, and all the resources and services here. Things like really formalizing our fundraising initiatives and how can we make sure that we are financially sustainable as an organization, rather than hoping that we're able to pay our February heat after we had so many days of single digit temperatures. So it's that sort of formalizing things well, still keeping to the heart of what the East Bluff Community Center has been and will continue to be.

TS: You mentioned the brand. Tell me a little bit about how the development of that came about and the meaning behind it.

KJ: Yeah, definitely. So like I said, the board went through this whole strategic planning process, and they came up with this vision. And this mission, our mission is to be a vibrant gathering place that really contributes to the stabilization of this neighborhood, by giving people community engagement opportunities. And so this brand is meant to reflect that vibrancy.

The brand mixes the history with our forward momentum, because it actually takes the facade of the building. And we have a graphic designer whose studio is in the building, and he stood outside looked at the building, and was amazed to see that the windows down the front of the building actually kind of looked like an E-B-C-C, which is what we call the East Bluff Community Center as its acronym. And so it honors the history of the building where all of this started. That it's a beautiful historical building in the neighborhood. And then it also has this really fresh and modern look to it that shows that we're on this forward momentum path.

And we had a community assessment done recently that was led by our graduate fellow Grayson Burke. And we found that what people really want in the East Bluff is more youth engagement, especially youth engagement, both for the sake of itself, and also to build more safety in the community by keeping kids engaged in positive outlets. So this fresh look also is meant to be more attractive to the young people that we want to be coming through our doors at the community center. And we're going to be using the logo and the colors and concepts of it to do a whole building revitalization with walls, graphic treatments on the walls, and just making it overall more inviting, and just sort of interesting to the young people in our community where they're going to want to come and see what's happening here.

TS: And that youth engagement. That's obviously something people want more of here in the East bluff neighborhood. Why is that so important?

KJ: Why youth engagement is? Well, it is a young neighborhood, there are a lot of more young people here. And it just, it's kind of gotten younger through the years. And there's not always a ton of resources for kids directly in the neighborhood. Like there's obviously after-school opportunities at their schools.

But for kids who are, maybe their families don't have a lot of transportation options, it's really important to have opportunities right here. And just the general sense of community in the East Bluff people. There's definitely a sense of like, this is my home, the East Bluff is my home. And so when opportunities are available right here in this neighborhood, there's a higher likelihood that a lot of kids will participate in them, or that their parents will encourage them to participate in them. So we see this place as really pivotal to a lot of the families as far as getting kids engaged.

And when we talk about youth engagement and why that's so important. There has been...we don't like, I mean, this isn't the story that I like to harp on. But of course, there's crime in the East Bluff, and a lot of it is young people who don't necessarily have positive outlets or things to do on a weekend night. And so when we can offer other options, more positive outlets for youth activity, then we are going to help contribute also to lowering the crime that we sometimes see in the neighborhood.

TS: What's the future look like? If you could tell me what's the East Bluff Community Center going to look like in a year, two years or five years? What's the overall plan?

KJ: Yeah, that's a great question. Well, right now, our focus is really how can we strategically partner with people to meet the needs that people brought up in the community survey that we did in the fall. So we've been in all kinds of meetings with local partners. We already have a lot of great partners in the building. Boys and Girls Club meets here. The YMCA does a basketball program here, and the list does go on.

But there were we want there to be more we want there to be more diversity of options for kids. A lot of the focus is sports right now. And we want to have other options like are mentoring, something for everybody, basically. So we've been talking to, for example, Big Brothers Big Sisters about doing some mentoring programming here. We've been talking to Peoria Art Guild. And they actually did their first watercolor class with us. And there's more to come with them.

So right now, it's really about how can we bring in more partners to offer more to the community with a focus on youth engagement, but families in general as well. And looking further into the future, this is something that our board is always talking about, how can we continue to grow?

Even facility wise, it's something we think about right now, this is our home, and we don't have any plans to leave it. But we think about how can we grow, we have a huge parking lot back there. If we get the funding, would we be able to add more facility to the back? And one of the big issues we have right now is that this building, though wonderful, is not ADA compliant. There's no elevator in here. So if we were able to get an elevator in the building to make it more accessible for everyone, or whether that means we're gonna use the parking lot and create a facility that's more accessible, when we have the funding to do so, the sky's the limit. And these are all things that we're always talking about and planning for. But right now, like I said, it's just about bringing in more programming and services is our main focus.

TS: Was there anything else you want people know about the East Bluff Community Center? Or what do you do here?

KJ: I always like to tell people that there's a way to get involved for everybody, whether you live right in the East Bluff, or if you are a Peoria resident who cares about strengthening the community as a whole, even if you don't live here, and you just like the idea of innovative community development, the way we've changed the story. This was a lost resource, a closed school, that is now a vibrant community hub.

So there's ways for people to get involved whether you want to participate in activities here. If you have a skill or service that you want to provide here, our doors are always open for that. And we would love to work with new service providers, whether that's an agency or an individual. And we have ways that people can give to the community center to financially if they're so inclined, we have a Friends of the East Bluff Community Center program that gets people involved through financial giving as well. So there's something for everybody and we would love to have more partners and friends at the EBCC.

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