On the evening of Dec. 15, JD Senkbile watched the mixed crowd in Park Ave. Commons.
"I thought, 'This is a great picture of what we dream of. You look around and see a great cross-section, and you know this is what we're here for,'" he said.
The occasion was the community center's first Christmas party. Park Ave. Commons, which opened in October at 1340 Park Ave., is still fine-tuning its programs and events. But one of its stated goals is to bring together the poorest people of the Park Avenue neighborhood with the young professionals who have moved into the area, as well as the older, upper-middle-class neighbors to the west.
InCommon Community Development opened Park Ave. Commons after three years of fundraising, grant applications, a detour to a wrong building, and donors of time and materials.
InCommon, which moved its offices into the new center, started as Mosaic Community Development. But in 2009 it changed its name to InCommon because its leaders had one core belief: The haves and have-nots of the community have a lot in common.
The faith-based nonprofit, directed by Christian Gray, tries to fight poverty in Omaha one neighborhood at a time. Organizers could see a great need along the Park Avenue corridor, a place dominated by crime, slum-lords' seedy apartment buildings and an unsavory reputation for prostitution and drugs.
But a lot of families with young children, especially Hispanic families, were coming into the area. And in recent years, many of the apartment buildings were being renovated and bringing in the young professionals. On the other side of Hanscom Park were the beautiful homes of the Hanscom and Field Club areas.
InCommon thought a community center could bring these disparate groups together, and since it opened, that goal has been modestly achieved. Residents in the neighborhood are taking advantage of what the center has to offer — things such as English as a second language instruction, children's art and GED classes; computers and a Wi-Fi connection; human connections to people who can help with specific problems or offer support; a place to meet and mingle.
Senkbile, who has served as a pastor of a nondenominational church and worked at a mission in Africa, was hired to be the director. “My role is to connect to neighbors, and free them to take ownership of what happens here.”
By that he means he wants to develop leaders in the neighborhood and he wants area residents to make Park Ave. Commons their own.
So far, it's a been a time of trial and error, he said. Some things have worked better than expected, some have not.
The center will be closed today through Jan. 5. During the holiday break, the InCommon leadership will continue evaluating how best to utilize the center during daytime hours. At times there is a lot of activity, but at other times, no one comes in, he said.
“We let the neighborhood drive what we do,” Senkbile said, so that will lead to a few changes.
ESL class participation has doubled, and an evening class will be added to the morning classes. A Sunday night Latino Bible class is also popular.
Ten people have registered for the GED classes, given in partnership with the Literacy Center. That number is expected to grow next year as the Literacy Center sends all its GED students to Park Ave. Commons and the program goes online for more difficult testing.
Speaking of going online, there are desktop computers in the center for public use. One recent user, Rick Fowler, 28, said he feels at home there. Fowler, who lives near the center and has a degree in communications, is without a job and uses the computers to send out résumés. He also volunteers his time to help people who are new to using computers.
The center also hopes to find a way to purchase laptop computers for the students taking the GED classes, so they don't tie up the public computers.
Senkbile said game nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays have had mixed results. No one has been too interested in playing games, but when there has been an event, it has been popular. Open-mike nights have drawn performers as well as good crowds. And about 30 people attended a gathering of musicians called the Deep Fried Blues Jam.
So next year, Thursday nights will be for events such as open-mike nights, concerts, movies and other programs. For now, games are out.
Tuesday nights, a church group will lead programs that will be open to the public. Mondays will be workshops on how to make healthy choices in life. Zumba dance fitness classes also will be offered.
The kids' art classes, which are well-attended, will be revamped. A new teacher will offer six-week sessions devoted to one technique/medium, beginning with drawing. To start the year, the class also will have a theme: the Olympics.
A recent hit at the center was the Christmas toy store, which was open to shoppers. Although the new toys were offered at discounted prices, people did have to purchase them. It's empowering for people to be able to buy something rather than just be given a handout, Senkbile said.
He told the story of a father of seven children who was so happy because it was the first year he had been able to buy gifts for all seven of his kids.
Which brings us back to the Christmas party. It was a joint event with the Hanscom Park and Ford Birthsite Neighborhood Associations, and it filled the room with more than 50 people and Santa Claus. It was a good beginning for bringing people together.
If there is a report card for the center's first two months, Senkbile probably would give it a B. “We're about where we want to be.”