By LINDA M. LINONIS
Neighborhood Ministries celebrates a century of service this year.
While its history in the Valley will be applauded at an upcoming anniversary banquet, individuals currently involved in programs and receiving services are concerned with the “here and now.”
Without Neighborhood Ministries in their lives, everyday help such as food, work-site mentoring, health screenings and assistance with forms and applications wouldn’t exist.
Bridget Cramer, director of West Side Community Center in Youngstown, can attest to that. She explained the center evolved from the merger of Calvary and West Side Baptist churches in 2009. The congregation worshipped at Calvary and sponsored a community center at West Side in partnership with NM. In November 2012, the church gifted the West Side building to NM.
Her husband, Pastor Carl Cramer, conducts a youth service at 6 p.m. Sundays.
Bridget Cramer, who had a full-time job, left it to become volunteer director at the center. She’s not alone — about a dozen other volunteers help weekly.
“I feel like I’m needed here,” she said. “I saw the need that the kids needed somewhere to go.”
While some can’t fathom changing their lifestyle in such a drastic way, Cramer said of her choice, “It was the best move I ever made.”
Working with youth in need “changed my heart,” she said.
Cramer acknowledged that before being involved in the center, she lived a life unaware in the suburbs. After volunteering there, she realized many children lived in poverty, food insecurity and daily crisis. While she can’t change their circumstances, she and other volunteers offer support, friendship and practical help with food and homework help.
“They blossom here. They learn responsibility, leadership and have a sense of belonging,” Cramer said. “Being a part of something benefits them,” she said. She added the center provides food, clothing and educational support that help give them stability.
The mother of two grown sons, Cramer has 25 girls who look to her for help and advice.
A creative outlet is Girls of Joy, a singing group for third- through 12th-graders. They’re preparing to perform at the annual community Thanksgiving dinner at First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown.
The center is open from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays with various youth programs for kindergarten through second grade, third through sixth grades and seventh through 12th grades that meet at separate times.
In cooperation with the West Side Coalition, center children have worked in its gardens and orchard. “They’ve learned a lot there,” Cramer said.
She takes pride in the center’s Science Fair preparation program run by Dottie Leonard, a 20-year volunteer in NM. Cramer said in the last four years, 11 students have advanced to state competition, where one won a scholarship to Wesleyan University and another a $1,500 scholarship at Case Western Reserve University.
The center’s summer job- training program for 13- to 15-year-olds provides a $200 stipend and $250 school shopping trip. “It develops leadership skills in them,” she said, adding if she couldn’t be at the center, the teens are capable of taking charge.
The “hands-on” presence of volunteers gives continuity to the youth, many of whom attend William Holmes McGuffey School, which is across the street.
The programs and services at West Side are mirrored at Rockford Village in Youngstown and Kirwan Homes.
Mark Samuel, NM executive director, said while the sites provide services, the organization also serves the “larger community’ through its summer food program at 19 sites at which about 1,000 youth are fed. There also is a weekend food program that provides six meals for children.
The Campbell Works for Children Collaborative is a NM partnership with Catholic Charities, Community Solutions, D&E Counseling, Help Hotline, P16 Education and Campbell elementary schools to operate after-school and summer tutoring services.
“For some people, it’s a struggle to get through each day,” Samuel said. NM offers supportive services including assistance with filling out job and college applications.
Samuel said NM has its challenges as well. It provides emergency food assistance because a regular distribution was too costly. “We struggle to address the needs with the budget we have,” he said.
But, he said, NM has made it through the Great Depression, World War I and II, 11 recessions, closing of the steel mills, upheaval during the ’60s and challenges since then. It has changed with the times to provide needed services.
“Neighborhood Ministries fills a niche,” he said. “We’re in a strong position to help people. We know there is huge need in the areas we address.”
Its mission statement is “Neighborhood Ministries, sharing Christ’s love, partners with others to build relationships that create safe, supportive and empowered communities one person at a time.”