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NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE 100 YEARS OF GENTLE CARE

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It was a dark and stormy afternoon. And it was Christmastime, too, which made what was about to happen even more poignant.

While snow whirled about outside the windows at Neighborhood House, a fire burned brightly in the fireplace. The kindergarten children were playing, and several of the good ladies who ran the institution were gathered near the warmth as well. One may suppose, they were talking of charitable works to come.There was a knock at the door.

In stumbled a small girl. She was a toddler, not much more than a baby, and she was blue from the cold.

Writing in the 1920s, Neighborhood House historian Lela Horn Richards describes what happened next. "Warm arms were held out to greet her, hot milk provided and her thin underwear replaced by warm flannels, but she was too ill from exposure and lack of food to respond to the children's happy enthusiasm."

Who was this little girl? Everything we know of her we know from Richards, who identified her only as The Blue Baby. Her father had disappeared. Her mother was too grief-stricken to look after the child, reports Richards. But due to the love and care she received at Neighborhood House, "she grew up into fine clean young womanhood, taking a position of trust in a business house in the city."

For generations, the women who serve on the board of directors of Neighborhood House have smilingly told each other the story of The Blue Baby. The words seem quaint and amusing to them now, but the moral of the story holds true: When a child comes to the door of Neighborhood House, she has come to the right place.

Neighborhood House will be 100 years old on June 18.

While hundreds of free public kindergartens were started in Europe and America in the 1800s, Neighborhood House is one of only a handful of such centers to have survived all these years.

Originally known as the Salt Lake City Free Kindergarten and Neighborhood House, it was organized by Emma Jane Kelly McVicker. McVicker was a New York woman who came to the Utah Territory to teach in the Salt Lake Collegiate Institute. She stayed on, married, and became the first president of the Children's Service Society of Utah. McVicker was also the first president of Neighborhood House, resigning in 1896 when she was appointed the first woman regent of the University of Utah.

Being from the East, McVicker had no doubt seen the free nursery schools modeled after the German kindergartens. When Friedrich Frobel started this type of education for the young child, he coined the term "kindergarten" because he didn't intend the children to be "schooled." Rather he wanted them to be allowed "under the gentlest treatment" to develop freely.

While McVicker and other Presbyterian ladies were the first to start talking about a free kindergarten for the poor, the project quickly became an ecumenical one. Everyone from LDS community leaders to the children of the Christian Science Church made donations.

The kindergarten staff began making home visits and secured 20 to 30 prospective students, found space in the Odd Fellows Hall, and began its work. Within two years the group had outgrown that space and moved to the Thirteenth Ward Annex, at 139 E. 200 South. There followed the nomadic years. The Unitarian Church offered spacious rooms, but when the kindergarten was located on Third East Street, it was too far from the neighborhood it was to serve.

By the late 1800s, in kindergartens throughout the United States, the definition of "gentle care" was expanding to include care for parents, infants and older brothers and sisters. In Salt Lake City, as in many other American cities, the first kindergartens were really more like settlement houses, and the teachers were the town's first social workers.

One of the first things the Neighborhood House ladies did, after they met the children, was to start a mother's group, a sewing group and a library. At various times the association owned and rented low-income housing and ran a dental clinic, a thrift shop, a free dispensary and milk station, citizenship classes and a women's employment service. There was a girls' club, a boys' club, scouting programs, lectures and music recitals. In the early 1900s, more than 80 girls were gathered several times a week for gym classes.

The early minutes describe what the ladies referred to as the Boy Problem. Only careful reading reveals they were actually talking about needing to raise money for a recreation center.

Today Neighborhood House is funded by fees, government programs and the United Way. Private donations, which once made up about 90 percent of the budget, now account for only 8 percent.

As in the past, there are more neighborhood children who need help than there is help available. Executive director Victoria Mori says even though the staff is serving 200 preschoolers and kindergarteners every day, there are always names on the waiting list.

Recently Mori met with several board members to talk about the 100th birthday party and to look at the remodeling that's being done in honor of the anniversary. The conversation turned to what Neighborhood House needs to be doing next and the women all agreed there was a desperate need for infant care, which, ironically, was one of Neighborhood House's first programs.

Sue Ellis, Patty Kimball, and Nancy Cornell agreed that the next 100 years will probably see a return to the full-service community center - where all the services a family needs are under one roof - much like Neighborhood House was in the last century.

One tradition that probably won't be revived, said Kimball, is the formality and regimentation of the early kindergarten. The children all wore uniforms. The teachers wore uniforms, too, up until the 1970s. "Pink uniforms, from the Steiner Corp."

A Desert News reporter who made a naptime visit to Neighborhood House in 1959 was touched by the regimentation he saw. Gary Blodgett wrote, "To see the tidiness of the children, their clothes placed perfectly at the foot of their beds, reminds you of your Army days - yet it is the most gratifying sight in the world."

Theories of child development have come and gone, but Neighborhood House remains. As Kimball walked from room to room, looking at the new furniture and smiling at the children, she tried to explain how deeply she loves the place. Her grandmother helped Emma McVickers start Neighborhood House. Her mother, who passed away several years ago, was also on the board of trustees.

And down the hall, teaching in the 6-year-old classroom, Victoria Garcia feels the same inter-generational bond. She was a child at Neighborhood House, says Garcia, and so was her mother. Her grandmother sent her mother to daycare while she herself went to classes to learn to speak English.

May, 1994. It was a dark and stormy afternoon. All told, there must have been a hundred children on the big and little kid's playgrounds and when the thunder began to crack the sky, wild shrieks of excitement arose.

Like horses in a field when a storm approaches, the children began to run in wide circles. With each bolt of lightning, they ran faster and yelled louder.

Two little girls sought out a teacher who was sitting on a bench. Alejandra and Maria hung on her lap, one under each arm, and cuddled close. They grinned, showing their pretty white baby teeth, and said they were not afraid.

A little boy ran past them, heading for the building. He huddled in a corner of the hallway. Mori noticed his plight and sat down, putting her arm around him. As thousands of Salt Lake children have done over the last 100 years, he sought the safety and familiarity of Neighborhood House. "It's OK," Mori told him. "The other kids will be coming in pretty soon, because it's going to rain. But you can stay right here as long as you want to."

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Additional Information

Centennial Carnival

Saturday, June 18, 1994 2:00 until 6:00 p.m. 1050 W. 500 South Neighborhood house is celebrating 100 years of service to families in Salt Lake City. Join the staff and trustees in remembering the founders who opened a free public kindergarten for underprivileged children in 1894, and in honoring all others whose efforts made Neighborhood House possible.