It is a gloomy Tuesday afternoon when the first knock is heard at the door.
A volunteer rises to greet the first of what could be 30 elementary school-aged students at the bright and colorful ‘Treat House’, 510 Warren St., for a free after-school program run by the organization nonprofit Project Renewal.
“We’re a stable place,” said Ann Schwickerath, the organization’s executive director.
And while kids get treats — today it’s Goldfish crackers and juice — the nearly 50-year-old organization provides so much more than that.
The first thing to do is ask each child if they have homework, and they will work on it, perhaps using one of the 17 computers in the house. When homework is done, kids are free to play a board game, read a book, or just hang out.
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Special programs are offered year-round by the staff of the Figge Art Museum, Common Chord (formerly River Music Experience), and Davenport Public Library.
All the while, Project Renewal volunteers and staff work to quietly affirm each child. They also try to teach how to resolve quarrels without fighting, use time constructively, and interact with “appropriate social behavior,” in the words of the organization’s website.
A visiting reporter sees an example of this when a volunteer suggests to second-grade student Isaac that he should introduce himself to the reporter. Isaac jumps up from a sofa, walks over and holds out his hand.
Amy Kersten, from Davenport, now in her ninth year volunteering with Project Renewal, said her first impression of the place was that it was “filled with laughter and great energy”. She still does, and that’s one of the reasons she sticks around. Another volunteer, PJ Slobogan, calls it “a great place to come to”.
Currently, 65 children are enrolled, from kindergarten to 12th grade.
One change in recent years is that older children are staying.
Previously, children began to drift away once they reached middle school and high school.
“We might not see them anymore,” Schwickerath said. “Maybe (coming to Project Renewal) wasn’t cool. But more kids started staying with us longer, into high school.
And the organization responded with programs just for them, offered in the evenings so teens who might have extracurricular or part-time jobs could attend.
These programs emphasize career exploration, examining what children could do after high school. To that end, Project Renewal takes kids to colleges — private and public four-year institutions as well as community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs — and brings in guest speakers to talk about various areas of work. .
The staff also tries to warn children about possible pitfalls. In partnership with the Center for Alcohol and Drug Services, staff come to offer advice on decision-making, refusal techniques, healthy meeting places and identifying friends and trusted adults.
“We walk through life with them so they can become productive in society,” Schwickerath said.
And when school is out for the summer, Project Renewal picks up with a solid slate of programs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
This includes swimming lessons; work in mathematics, reading and writing; craft projects and field trips. The kids visited Davenport Spray Park and Nahant Marsh in Davenport, the Wapsi Environmental Center near Dixon, and Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat near Wheatland, Iowa. Smaller groups attended ball games at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, visited Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley and volunteered for Bix at Six practice runs.
How the Renewal project got started
The group traces its roots to 1972, when Sister Concetta Bendicente came to Davenport from Chicago to serve her order, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. She moved to the neighborhood just west of the city center and began observing the needs – the homeless, the children playing on the train tracks, the elderly without families.
She decided she could help and bought a condemned brick house on the corner of 5th and Warren which she furnished and lived in to be a positive presence in the neighborhood and serve as a base to help those she met. .
“At that time, there weren’t all the major social service organizations that exist today,” said Ann Schwickerath, executive director of Project Renewal. “Sister Concetta did a bit of everything, providing food, clothing, transportation, and helping the homeless and the elderly.”
Over time, attention narrowed to children, and efforts were organized in 1974 under the auspices of a non-profit organization. To serve more children, the organization purchased for park purposes nearby vacant land where an 1850s school once stood and, in 2002, a duplex that became the Treat House.
For the first 20 years, the staff was entirely voluntary.
In 1993, Ann Schwickerath, then a fresh graduate from the University of Iowa where she majored in sociology and arts education, came to work for the summer and never left.
She became general manager and was the only full-time employee for many years. The organization now has two full-time and three part-time employees who work year-round, and it typically hires about eight seasonal employees to help with summer programs, often work-study students.
The organization’s annual operating budget is approximately $245,000, with money coming from federal community development grants administered by the City of Davenport, grants from regional foundations, and “a large list of loyal donors. private,” Schwickerath said. The budget is expected to increase to $280,000 for the fiscal year beginning July 1 with the hiring of an additional staff member and operation of the expanded space.
A point of pride for Project Renewal is that its original brick home is where Mother Teresa stayed in April 1976 when she was in Davenport to receive the Pacem in Terris award from the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council. Mother Teresa was the founder of a religious order of nuns, known for her work with the poor and sick in India and elsewhere in the world. In 2016, she was canonized as a saint.