Saturday morning, Project Neighbors touched on the past, present, and future of Valparaiso. Members who have been with the organization for decades joined supporters, some who were brought on board over the years as the group expanded and some new who were interested in learning how they can help. The meeting began with a chorus of beautiful voices from area students who set the tone for the power of collaboration evident throughout both the history of the organization and this first ever annual supporters meeting.
Pat Terrill, a long serving member, kicked it off with a quick history of the organizations founding as the Valparaiso Builders Association in 1968. Its mission was to “respect and encourage community” that Walt Reiner, the co-founder of the organization, instilled and how that manifested itself through initiatives related to diversity, child care, and health care. In the early chapters, they helped African Americans assimilate into the Valparaiso community, established Hilltop Neighborhood House to help struggling families with child care, and launched what is now HealthLinc, which addressed the critical needs for affordable health care. This made up just a few of the core areas that the city benefitted from with their leadership. The model of citizenship and neighborliness that Walt and the other founders used to guide them continued with the transition to the organization under the new banner of Project Neighbors in 1998, and the scope of the mission and the significance of the impact multiplied as well.
Milestones along that path included building affordable, safe housing for low income women with Neighbors Place and Caroline’s Place, building the Dayspring homeless shelter, stepping into the need for adult education by establishing Neighbors Educational Opportunities (NEO), founding WVLP or the Voice of Valparaiso in radio, and buying and building many properties as options for affordable housing which is a model for community organizations everywhere. Each of these projects was a theme that Lois Reiner often describes as “one thing leads to another,” Paul Schreiner, Executive Director of Project Neighbors, noted.
“There is a central theme of how do we make the whole community better, and we are opportunists that see a need and try to fill it to achieve that goal,” Schreiner said when describing the flexibility of the organization that allows them to respond to a changing community.
Schreiner stressed how much they appreciate the dedicated board that includes lawyers, accountants, social workers, and even an architect who have all served with not only with their trained talents, but also a large helping of sweat and hard work. The board works hand in hand with volunteers from a variety of backgrounds to make the projects happen with the fewest dollars possible. He touched on one of the current focus areas for the group, which is the comprehensive approach that they took to establishing the recently released Agenda for a Better Community (ABC). The document can serve as a guidepost for our community to consider when thinking about leadership decisions in the future. Having a set of common sense questions that speak to the type of community envisioned for Valparaiso, and fostering an active discussion on those points in small groups and public meetings, will lead to a clearer understanding of how we achieve those goals ahead of municipal elections coming up in 2019.
Heath Carter, a Project Neighbors board member, and the lead for the Human Relations Council in Valparaiso, spoke to how this is a different city because of the work that Project Neighbors has done throughout those 50 years. He emphasized how important the organization is when facing the challenges of how the community can evolve to one that is more diverse than it historically has been, as well as the historic economic inequality that drives the need to find affordable housing solutions in our community. The success of Valparaiso in recent years, particularly in its downtown area, bringing a vibrant economic hub of activity, provides obstacles for those who are on the lower half of the income spectrum who are finding it far more challenging to purchase a home, or find affordable rental properties.
Byron Martin, another board member of Project Neighbors, spoke of viewing the organization as a conduit to bring people together as partners in a common mission.
“We stand in the gap of getting people to show up around the same table that normally don’t meet at the same table,” Martin commented. “We can educate one another. The ABC is a set of questions that we can ask our schools, our government, our businesses, and our neighbors”
Jeff Lewis, board member and architect, closed the meeting reminding the crowd of the ways in which they can make a difference going forward through advocacy, volunteering, and giving.
“Coming to meetings, showing up at the polls, engaging with conversations, and educating yourself on the issues that impact the quality of life in this cities future are all critical.”
He explained that volunteering with the organization allows people to serve a great cause, but also “improves you by being around people that are helping each other.”
Ultimately, he stressed the need for the financial resources to drive all of the projects that this organization is supporting, and that “every dollar here goes to the mission.”
You can read all about the organization’s history and current projects on the website www.projectneighbors.org and stay in touch with them via their Facebook page www.facebook.com/ProjectNeighbors. Project Neighbors is always looking for volunteers to help put the mission to work throughout the community, so please visit their website for more information about volunteering and giving back to the Valparaiso community.