Rafah Shawa arrived in the U.S. in 2016 with her three young children, “looking for a new life.”
Her husband was still in Saudi Arabia, and so she had to establish the family in Portland on her own.
She was trying to find a preschool for her 5-year-old twins, “but they were so expensive.” A neighbor recommended Neighborhood House.
“Right away we liked the school,” she says. “And we felt so welcome. So very welcome.”
Neighborhood House, an independent nonprofit that was founded by the National Council of Jewish Women, has been welcoming immigrants for more than 100 years, seeking to be a safe harbor for them during what is often a difficult transition. It is one of 10 nonprofits selected for The Oregonian/OregonLive’s 2018 Season of Sharing holiday fundraising campaign to benefit social-service agencies in the region; this year, the campaign is focusing on education and literacy.
The agency has a full- and part-time staff of 134 and an annual operating budget of $6.5 million. The organization chiefly relies on state funding, with about 58 percent of the budget coming from government contracts, 27 percent from fee-for-service revenues and 15 percent from private and community support through contributions and foundation grants. Neighborhood House helps more than 6,000 people every year.
“The Neighborhood House strives to meet the incoming immigrant at the station, not with the sign, ‘Welcome, Lots for Sale,’ but with the sign, ‘Welcome, Nothing for Sale,’ ” Rabbi Jonah B. Wise said in 1912, referring to the fact that recent immigrants at the time often were easy prey for fast-talking salesmen and swindlers. “Its purpose is to help the immigrant adapt himself to the new surroundings.”
The social-service organization’s core mission remains the same all these decades later. It assists new immigrants with everything from an “emergency food box” program to rent assistance to English as a Second Language classes. But these days, it also helps seniors stay active and connected. Last year, it took on a financially struggling Native American Youth Association program that fosters in Native children a “sense of identity, belonging and pride in their heritage.”
And Neighborhood House’s signature work is now early-childhood development, via its three Head Start preschool locations in Portland and its Peninsula Children’s Learning Center in Northeast Portland. The organization also partners with Portland elementary schools such as Sabin and Boise-Eliot. Its Hayhurst Connect afterschool program provides extended instruction for Hayhurst Elementary students who are struggling.
“This is amazing work to be part of,” Neighborhood House development director Mari Yerger says, “because this is the time to make a difference in a child’s life that will impact the rest of their life.”
Neighborhood House’s early-development programs focus on children’s social and emotional growth, but they also make sure the entire family is involved.
Staffers encourage parents to volunteer in the preschool classes and offer help with whatever challenges they face, from health-related issues to employment. This includes weekly home visits using a curriculum called Parents as Teachers, which allows a family advocate to understand the home setting, support parents one-on-one and tailor assistance to each family.
“Some are social workers, some are parents hired into the program and trained in this model, which we’ve used for years,” Yerger says of the family advocates. “It’s a highly regarded, evidence-based model we’ve had a lot of success with. It’s an amazing program that really engages parents a lot.”
Shawa is an example of that success. She became a Neighborhood House volunteer when her twins started in preschool. College-educated in Syria, she showed an aptitude for the work, and so staff encouraged her to acquire her child-development associate credential. She’s now a family advocate for the organization.
“It’s so fascinating,” she says of working with families from a variety of cultural backgrounds and experiences. “And rewarding.”
Despite Neighborhood House’s long track record in the community, paying for its programs is increasingly difficult.
“We’ve never had to raise money for our Head Start,” Yerger says. “Head Start broke even year after year. But now we do need to do some fundraising. We need to close the gap.”
“Early childhood education is a difficult business,” she adds. “The pressure to hire people with the highest credentials is very great, but the funding isn’t there. Everyone wants there to be evidence-based programming with highly trained educators, but it’s hard to provide that when funding doesn’t change.”
The work goes on, with children learning and laughing and playing in Neighborhood House’s brightly colored classrooms.
“It’s done a lot for my own parenting,” Shawa says of her experience working at the organization’s Southwest Portland children’s center. “I take things I’ve learned and what we do here and apply them to my kids. Even the songs!”
She proudly says her twins have been “recognized for being talented and gifted” by Portland Public Schools. “I believe that, for them, being here was a big part of that.”
— Douglas Perry
What your donation can do
$10: Provides art supplies for 15 children.
$25: Provides 100 pounds of healthful food through the Emergency Food Box Program.
$75: Provides 10 rides to medical appointments and shopping for seniors in need.
$100: Covers moving costs and rental applications for a family transitioning into permanent housing.
How to donate
Send checks to:
Season of Sharing
Oregonians Credit Union
336 N.E. 20th Ave.
Portland, OR 97232