East Toledo Family Center expanded to serve generations

1/30/2011

Roughly a quarter century ago, Michael Fitch was in preschool at the East Toledo Family Center.

Now his older son, Michael Fitch, Jr., is in the same preschool, playing and learning how to adjust to being in a group before kindergarten begins. And having the 4 -year-old in preschool helps out his parents. Mr. Fitch and his wife, Stacy, of East Toledo, are full-time college students, and they also have a 10-month-old son, Matthew.

"I like how the teachers, for one, interact with the kids," said the boys' mother. "He seems like he enjoys himself."

Mrs. Fitch added of Michael, Jr.: "He's always bringing something, like arts and crafts, home."

"It's a nice thing to think the community keeps coming back," said Mr. Dodsworth, assistant director.

The center got its start on Aug. 4, 1901, as a mission tent meeting in East Toledo held by the Rev. H.W. Hoover, former pastor of Memorial Baptist Church. His East Toledo mission work primarily for immigrant families went beyond religion and resulted in the formation of Neighborhood House, more formally known as the Ohio Neighborhood Institute.

By 1916, Neighborhood House on Vinal Street had, among other features, a large playground used by 5,000 children annually, and nearly 3,500 people attended American citizenship classes, according to the center's history. More than 28,750 people were involved with Neighborhood House that year, and as immigrants flooded America after World War I, Neighborhood House helped them adjust.

As growth continued, Neighborhood House moved to a new location and assumed a new identity: the East Toledo Family Center.

Michael Fitch, Jr., plays at the East Toledo Family Center, which his father attended about 25 years ago. The center offers a variety of educational, social service, and recreational programs.
Michael Fitch, Jr., plays at the East Toledo Family Center, which his father attended about 25 years ago. The center offers a variety of educational, social service, and recreational programs.

A dedication was held on Sept. 18, 1971, for the center's current site on Varland Avenue, a half mile north on East Broadway from the original Neighborhood House.

More than 500 people attended the dedication for the $602,000 center, which now serves about 10,000 people a year with various educational, social service, transportation, and recreational programs.

The East Toledo Senior Activities Center in the Navarre Park Shelter House on White Street also is part of the center. The senior center moved out of the main location two decades ago, giving the nearly 600 members their own space for doing aerobics, taking part in painting classes, assembling puzzles, watching movies, and enjoying other activities.

"They take us shopping, which is a big help, because I don't drive," Mavis Dimitroff, 85, of East Toledo said of weekly grocery shopping trips that cost $1.

Mrs. Dimitroff routinely enjoys socializing and lunch for $2.50 at the center with four other widows in their 80s: Ann Capeheart of East Toledo, Mary Burkhart of Oregon, Helen Noll of East Toledo, and Iyoko Shimizdu of Oregon, who moved from Japan in 1960 and received help from the East Toledo Family Center to gain citizenship in 1975.

"It's funny — you start somewhere, and you just stay with the group," said Mrs. Dimitroff, who joined the senior center 10 years ago.

"The other people," she added with a mischievous smile while glancing at other tables, "steal from off your plate."

"Mavis!" said Mrs. Capeheart, 87, an 18-year center member. "Since when?"

Joking aside, the women said the East Toledo Family Center and East Toledo Senior Center provide much-appreciated services, including trips to local restaurants and the Detroit casinos.

Although Mrs. Burkhart also is a member at the Oregon Senior Center, she said she prefers going to the East Toledo Senior Center as she has for seven years.

"These are my people," the 82-year-old said.

The East Toledo Family Center on Varland Avenue was dedicated on Sept. 18, 1971. The center got its start on Aug. 4, 1901, as a mission tent meeting to offer assistance to immigrant families.
The East Toledo Family Center on Varland Avenue was dedicated on Sept. 18, 1971. The center got its start on Aug. 4, 1901, as a mission tent meeting to offer assistance to immigrant families.

The center's 110th anniversary celebration started with a logo contest last fall, and the winning entry by Holly Gusky and Micheal Kucz incorporated a tree and the phrase "Rooted in the past branching towards the future." The logo was unveiled last week at the annual meeting, when a video was shown of the center's history.

A parade may be added this summer to the annual Family Fun Fest as part of the anniversary festivities, said Kim Partin, executive director.

The center has 70 employees running a variety of programs at the center and elsewhere, Ms. Partin said. Those working in the Help Me Grow program, for example, assist local families with babies until they are 5 through home visits, and the center offers before and after-school programs.

About 18 months ago, the center started a financial stability advocacy program through the United Way of Greater Toledo for residents who need advice on budgeting, credit cards, and other topics, Ms. Partin said. About 75 people have received long-term mentoring, and 1,700 have gotten short-term assistance, according to the center.

Education and assistance of all types take place at the East Toledo Family Center.

For years, 19-year-old Corey Brown of East Toledo has been active at the center, through which he helped with Hurricane Katrina cleanup in Mississippi. He dropped out of Phoenix Academy after starting to work full time, but he started taking GED classes at the center 2 months ago and plans to finish this year.

"I'm hoping to start college soon," Mr. Brown said.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.