Chicago, Illinois — Lavergne Court Learning Center/Mercy Housing Lakefront Resident Lab Technology Center opened in the early 1990s, held its official grand opening in 2006 and in November 2009 became a Model Neighborhood Networks center. Former center director Rose Mabwa says she believes the Neighborhood Networks center has flourished because the residents and community are mutually engaged in and empowered through the center.
The recipe for success, she says, is straight forward and simple. Introduce residents to a broad range of possibilities, encourage them to believe that their goals and dreams are attainable, equip them with the practical skills they need to achieve those dreams, and then support them as they employ the hard but rewarding work that leads to self-sufficiency.
According to Mabwa (who moved to become a senior manager in another department of Mercy Housing Lakefront and is the new president of the Illinois Neighborhood Networks Consortium) and new center director Maggie Gillette, Lavergne Court/Mercy Housing offers a range of courses and programs to help residents gain and refine life and employment skills, and achieve academic success. The center staff work with 400 residents to reach personal and family goals and about 20 adults and 25 youth and children come to the center to participate in programs and services daily.
The Lavergne Court/Mercy Housing Lakefront Resident Lab Technology Center is only the 16th Neighborhood Networks center in the nation to earn Model center classification and the first in Illinois. When asked how the center achieved Model center classification, Gillette says Mabwa deserves a lot of the credit. “We never would have achieved Model center classification without Rose Mabwa,” says Gillette. “She is also my inspiration and model as a center director.”
The center has 21 computers, and is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. It offers basic to advanced computer courses, online job search and resume writing classes, and year-round programs for children and youth aged 5-17, including afterschool programs, summer camp, scholarship assistance, digital storytelling, summer jobs, youth employment and entrepreneurial programs.
Adult residents mostly use the center between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and children and youth often use it between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to do home work or participate in educational programs. The afterschool educational program is comprehensive and designed to foster parent engagement. It also promotes technology proficiency for children and youth.
Paving a Path to Self-Sufficiency
According to Mabwa, more than 300 adults have taken the center’s computer courses, which include basic introduction to computers; Microsoft certification class; and a computer refurbishing course through which residents learn how to re-build donated computers they then take home for personal use. About 40 residents have graduated from the computer refurbishing class the last two years and have become proficient in hardware management.
In addition to resume writing and online job search skills, the center provides job seekers with intensive life skills training so they are prepared to function with confidence in a professional work environment. Through its job skills training, the center has put 100 people to work, including residents who were faced with and had to overcome significant hardships in their past.
“Several people who learned job and life skills through the center have achieved a level of success that has allowed them to move into their own homes,” Mabwa says. “They often come back just to say hello. That makes me feel like we’ve really achieved something special. Like most Neighborhood Networks centers, we started with little. But with a team approach, including management, partners, staff, volunteers, and clients, we built something great together.”
Planting the Seeds of Success
When the center opened, Mabwa and her staff knocked on doors, distributed flyers, encouraged word-of-mouth marketing, and offered afterschool programs to attract children and get their families involved. The strategy worked.
“When parents and other families came to the center, they not only took an interest in the center and programs, they broadened their outlook,” Mabwa says. “Residents also began to take a greater interest in maintaining their homes, the property and making the community a better place to live.”
For example, Mabwa says several years ago when the management company made a decision to tear down a building on the property, adult and youth residents re-claimed the land as green space and planted an award-winning organic vegetable and herb garden. According to Gillette, the garden remains a center piece of the youth program, continues to be award winning and is now taking on an entrepreneurial (small business) focus.
“For a whole summer, the kids tended the garden by pulling weeds, mixing worms with the soil to enrich it and watering the plants,” Mabwa says. “Then during harvest season, the kids dried the herbs and made and sold their own jambalaya mix.”
The children and youth also sold their herbs and vegetables at a local farmer’s market. Combining the good study habits that were re-enforced by Mercy Housing’s afterschool program with their experience in the garden, some students qualified for scholarships to the Chicago School of Agriculture.
A program to teach teen moms about nutrition used fresh ingredients from the garden in a cooking class. The class was attended by the teens’ mothers or grandmothers with them to support the intergenerational bond in their families.
Beyond Job Training
The Lavergne Court/Mercy Housing Neighborhood Networks center staff designed other programs to meet the needs of the residents as they became apparent. These have included a financial literacy course in partnership with a local bank so that residents could learn money management. More than 100 people and families opened bank accounts. A similar financial literacy class was offered this year for residents aged 5-15.
The center partnered with Loretto Hospital to bring a portable mammogram van to the center where 10 of 50 women screened discovered they had suspicious lumps or were in the early stages of breast cancer and got life-saving treatment. One multi-year program, Building Bridges, was a women’s support group that included an annual retreat where women got away from telephones, television, and everyday life to discuss their goals and dreams.
The center also partnered with Wilbur Wright College, part of the City College of Chicago system, to offer a specialized life planning and workforce development program for adults. Ten residents completed the program, received completion certificates, developed a personalized life plan, and were exposed to a variety of alternative workforce opportunities.
“Adults and children who have gone through our center programs are walking, talking inspirations for me and the residents, ” says Mabwa, who believes fervently in the power of dreams.
For more information about Neighborhood Networks centers in Illinois, contact:
George R. Gilmore
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – Chicago Multifamily Hub
Ralph Metcalfe Federal Building
77 West Jackson Boulevard, Room 2301
Chicago, Illinois 60604-3507
For more information about Lavergne Court Learning Center/Mercy Housing Lakefront Resident Lab Technology Center, contact:
Lavergne Court Learning Center/Mercy Housing Lakefront Resident Lab Technology Center
4943 Quincy Street
Chicago, Illinois 60644