The University Record, October 1, 1996

Peace Neighborhood Center offers haven for 1,200-plus each year

Bonnie Billups (left), a volunteer at Ann Arbor's Peace Neighborhood Center, counsels teenager in an after-school program.

Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Jared Blank


Now in its 25th year, Peace Neighborhood Center (PNC) provides programming for residents of Ann Arbor's west side who are facing social and economic problems. The center offers a variety of services, including drug addiction counseling, after-school tutoring, financial assistance and employment services, to more than 1,200 people every year.

PNC's programs, as those of all non-profit community agencies, would not be possible without the time and financial support of community members. The center relies on the public for most of its funding: nearly one-half of its budget comes from individual contributions, and one-third is derived from United Way contributions.

Betsy Barlow, project associate in the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, is one of many U-M staff members and Project Outreach students who have donated their time and talents to the Center. Barlow began volunteering at the Center following a term as president of the Ann Arbor Public Housing Commission, during which, she says, she learned about many of the issues facing the residents of public housing and the ways the center provides assistance to them.

"One of our first goals was to keep young people in school," she says. "We used to see dropouts from fifth and sixth grades. This is a walking disaster for the community. How are these kids going to make a living?" To combat a perceived attitude of indifference toward drop-outs by the schools in those years, PNC set up meetings with area principals, teachers and parents. Following the discussions, Barlow says that the schools better understood the problems that children were facing at home and in their community.

It's important to note, Barlow adds, that keeping kids in school is not enough to help them succeed. The center provides tutorial assistance, often with the help of U-M students, for 30-40 children each year. "The kids can slip through the cracks in a class of 30," she says. "Kids may be embarrassed to ask for help in a class setting. With small-group or individual tutoring, the students can build a relationship with the tutors. The program has been wildly successful." Barlow has seen young children who have participated in the tutoring program attend college on scholarships. "These kids are graduating and becoming leaders in the community. Some have even come back to mentor young kids at the center."

PNC also has created a program to help its clients find employment. "It's hard to keep a family on an even keel when the mother or father doesn't have a job," Barlow says. "Jobs are absolutely key."

Working with local businesses, the center tells employers that PNC will guarantee its clients for six months---that the center will work with its clients to troubleshoot problems that could prevent the new employee from getting to work. PNC has helped provide transportation to and from work when an automobile isn't working and has found day care for sick children. "After the first paycheck comes, people are generally so delighted that they make every effort to solve the problems themselves," Barlow adds.

Perhaps the most divisive and pervasive problem facing clients of the center is drug abuse. "We see an awful lot of substance abuse here," Barlow says. "When the single parent is on drugs, it's like they're absent. There's no one to encourage the children, to provide support for them." The center now has anti-drug programs geared toward children and counseling programs for those trying to control their addictions. Barlow says that she has seen many successes come out of the adult addiction meetings. "People are so happy to have a new life and new relationships with their kids. They are determined to give back to the community everything they can." Barlow notes that some people in the program cook meals for others and provide extra assistance for new recovering addicts.

The Center hopes to address children's health issues and work more with whole families in the future. But, Barlow says, the Center already has had to cut back on the number of clients it takes because of funding problems.

The University's United Way campaign runs through October.