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Community center serves needy in Texas border town

 


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Jan. 26, 2004

A UMNS Feature By Nancye Willis*

For 110 years, a United Methodist-related ministry in the U.S.-Mexico border city of El Paso, Texas, has been providing social services to people among the least likely to succeed in life.

Houchen Community Center operates in the city's Segundo Barrio with the aim of enriching the lives of its clients, who are about 98 percent Hispanic/Latino. "We help needy people - children, youth and senior citizens - survive in a disadvantaged environment," says Executive Director Elsie Connor.

Founded in 1893 as a settlement house to provide homes for young, single Mexican immigrant women, Houchen has seen changes in scope but not in focus. "Houchen was needed at that time and is needed in the same way today," Connor says.

The educational level of residents in the area surrounding the center is "as bad or worse as in its early days, with an average of a fifth-grade education among adults," she adds. In addition, "Ours is one of the lowest-income areas in the United States; average annual income is $7,300."

Today's Houchen Center covers an entire city block. The Women's Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries owns the buildings and provides an annual financial allocation through its Restorative Justice program. A dozen El Paso United Methodist churches assume the cost of utilities and upkeep.

Nohemy Ramirez, a single mother studying for a career in the medical field, can't afford day care for her three children. So she comes to Houchen, where care is provided on a sliding scale.

"I have nobody else to take care of them," Ramirez says. "They help me out a lot," she says of the staff members.

Houchen requires that the adult is either working or going to school. "This type of requirement helps people get off welfare (and) out of the food stamp line," Connor says. "Eventually, we try to help them become self-supporting."

Houchen's child development center is licensed to care for 200 children and is handicap certified. Like Ramirez's children, 90 percent of the children served are from families of single mothers.

"A Head Start program operates on the premises," Connor says, "as well as a 'latchkey' program of after-school care for five elementary schools. Our LIFT (Learning Is Fun Today) after-school tutoring program provides math and reading help for 90 at-risk students in grades 2 through 7."

All Houchen staff are certified child development associates, and each receives 20 hours of child development training yearly. A small group of volunteer grandparents serves Houchen in a city-administered program that assigns them to non-profit organizations. The city of El Paso pays each a small stipend.

Other services include Los Duros ("The Tough Ones"), a program for teenage boys and young men that emphasizes goal setting, self-discipline and development of positive values. A variety of sports, aerobics, movies, computer skills enhancement and Bible studies also are aimed at youth.

Five generations of seniors living nearby have come to the center daily to sew and enjoy camaraderie, friendship and social interaction, and more than 350 people rely on Houchen's food pantry.

"During our Christmas basket project, members of El Paso churches bring food and gifts for families," Connor says. "This year, 165 families asked for assistance - just the bare necessities. Each child usually receives one or two toys, and the parents get an article or two of clothing."

Houchen's name honors Rose Gregory Houchen, a former Michigan schoolteacher, who, in 1912, donated $1,000 to the effort. In 1963, responding to the changing social culture, the settlement house's name was changed to Houchen Community Center. Six years later, it began its day care program for children of working mothers.

More information on the center is available at http://www.gbgm-umc.org/vistaysleta/houch1.htm.

*Willis is editor for the Public Information Team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn. This story is based on material gathered for a UMTV report produced by Carey Moots.  News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

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