Bright, welcoming new Family Center opens a world of opportunities for SHIM
Enise Sari spent much of her first year in the United States in tears.
She lived in McKeesport with her husband and young son, and she was pregnant with her second child. She knew no English and was having a difficult pregnancy.
When the family, who immigrated from Turkey, moved to the Whitehall Place housing complex in Whitehall Borough a year later, Sari discovered nonprofit South Hills Interfaith Movement’s Family Center. At the time, it was located inside the housing complex.
The Family Center helped her get to the doctor, and she began taking English classes. She received tax help. They even helped her sign her son up for school, when the time came.
“When I found the Family Center, I said, ‘Thank God. I feel like I’m in heaven,’” said Sari, now 40, who has been using the services of the Prospect Park Family Center for 11 years.
Today, she helps tutor others in English.
In March, the Family Center expanded its space, relocating to the Baldwin-Whitehall School District-owned Wallace building, with the goal of offering more to residents across the entire area, said James Guffey, SHIM executive director.
As the final touches of paint went on the new, nearly 7,000-square-foot space earlier this month, SHIM opened the doors of the Family Center to invite guest in for an open house to see the new space.
“It’s really a bright, welcoming space,” repeated Courtney Macurak, director of programs, as she entered nearly every room, from the early childhood room to adult and youth mentoring spaces.
The SHIM Family Center opened inside one apartment in the Whitehall Place, then known as Prospect Park, housing complex in 2007.
As services and needs grew, so did the Family Center, which Macurak says offers everything from signing up for health insurance to registering children for kindergarten.
Prior to moving, the Family Center encompassed seven one- and two-bedroom apartments in Whitehall Place. The housing complex has a large immigrant and refugee population, many of whom have come to rely on the services offered at the Family Center.
The latest U.S. Census showed that 13.4 percent of Whitehall’s 13,139 residents older than age 5 speak a language other than English at home, nearly 3 percent above the state average.
“As we grew, we realized we were growing out of our space very quickly,” Macurak said.
At Whitehall Place, space was cramped and there was little private space to meet with clients. Staff members were basically working on top of each other and there wasn’t room to add more.
SHIM leadership spent years looking for a new space, Guffey said. They looked for a place that would be close in proximity to Whitehall Place, yet somewhere they’d be able to expand their offerings, he said. They had waiting lists of people seeking help.
SHIM signed a three-year lease agreement for the space in the Wallace building, with the option of extending it for two years.
Most of the first few months have been about acclimation, Guffey said. The biggest concern with the move was that people wouldn’t be able to find the Family Center. So far, that hasn’t been a problem.
Actually, people utilizing the Baldwin Borough Public Library, located on the other side of the Wallace building, have started using the services.
The new space has allowed for increased partnerships and the ability to serve more people, Macurak said. They also now have access to a joint playground and large gymnasium.
Macurak smiled as she showed off the bright, colorful new early childhood room, where roughly 30 rambunctious third- and fourth-graders will attend classes this fall.
“There’s so much space and light,” she said.
There’s an adult classroom where parenting classes can be held, or the space can serve as a community meeting area.
Teens laughed in the youth mentoring space, as they gave themselves henna tattoos and quietly talked among themselves. The space is much bigger than what they had before, Macurak said.
The staff, too, now has its own linked office space. There’s no need to put on a coat and go to another apartment to talk to a coworker about a situation, Macurak said. There’s a space for counseling.
And, with so much of the programming revolving around food, there’s even a community kitchen.
Inside the community lounge, sewing machines line tables along the wall, and couches are spread out around the room.
There’s space for everyone.
As Sari walked through the new Prospect Park Family Center at the Baldwin-Whitehall, she smiled ear to ear. It felt like home, she said.
Her favorite room is the adult classroom. There, SHIM let a group of immigrants and refugees who resettled to the U.S. celebrate Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr.
“We were dancing,” Sari said. “I feel like I’m in my country. We can share everything.”
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.