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The City Impact Center: Doing good in the neighborhood
Story by T.R. Witcher
What does the City Impact Center do? What doesn’t it do? Meet the scrappy cluster of do-gooders that make up the emerging new model for social service
The Trinity Life Center church is one of the oldest churches in Las Vegas. It traces its roots back to Tenth Street downtown, and it has been in its current home, on St. Louis Avenue, a few blocks west of Maryland Parkway, since the 1960s.
For years, this area was the heart of the city. Commercial Center opened in 1960. The swanky Las Vegas Country Club opened in 1967. The midcentury ranch homes nearby represented fine contemporary living. It was a much smaller city then; fewer than 300,000 people lived in the entire county.
“Mayors and everybody lived around here,” says Pastor Vic Caruso, who grew up in the area. “It wasn’t the inner city, it was the city.”
Trinity, the largest Assembly of God church in town, was mainly an “old-money, white church,” says Caruso. The church ran a successful trio of schools that provided K-12 education. And for a few decades, the church enjoyed its prosperity.
But Las Vegas was changing. By the ’80s and ’90s, those affluent central city residents were decamping for the suburbs. By the time lead Pastor Randy Greer came to Trinity in 1990, from Los Angeles, the neighborhood was beginning a long-term demographic shift. As early as 1992, Greer was pushing to make the church more ethnically diverse. (The church is now home to a variety of ethnic congregations that share space, including Spanish, Congolese, Filipino, Indonesian and Bulgarian.)
By 1997, he had a vision that Trinity was going to radically remake itself, to start reaching out to a community that was no longer wealthy and no longer only white. He just didn’t know what that change was going to look like.
It took almost 10 years for Greer’s vision to manifest itself in the creation of the City Impact Center, a large — and growing — collection of social service programs the church runs from the five-acre campus of land it owns between St. Louis and Sahara avenues. The center opened just as the recession was getting its teeth into Las Vegas, and it has served thousands of people since.
It almost didn’t happen.
There was a moment, 10 years ago or so, when it looked like the change Greer imagined might be to simply follow Trinity’s departing churchgoers out to the ’burbs.
“If we’re going to keep doing business the way we do, we have to be in the suburbs,” Greer says, recalling the church’s thinking a decade ago. In 2000, the church bid to purchase a closing school in the northwest valley. After losing to another bidder, the board, under Greer’s leadership, made a momentous decision. The grass wasn’t greener in Summerlin, they decided. Trinity was going to stay put in the neighborhood it had grown up in.
“We felt that’s what we were supposed to do. We weren’t going to be doing business as usual.”
The financial stakes of that decision were big. “The real estate was so valuable,” Caruso adds. “We could have cashed out for a lot of money and left. But we decided to stay where we were. ... If somebody doesn’t stay here, what happens to the people? What happens to the neighborhood?”
The neighborhood is starting to find out. Today, the center is a bustling matrix of service groups, nonprofits and charities that do everything from feed the poor to immunize kids. The church that had once considered splitting for the ’burbs has instead become a nucleus for public service, one whose message of selflessness resonates with — and inspires — the center’s numerous tenants.
One of City Impact Center’s providers is a medical clinic called Operation H.O.P.E. Its founder, physician Elliot Shin, provides medical services for free — but asks that patients pay forward their care by doing good deeds in the community.
“When I heard the church history, I knew this was the right church to work with,” says Shin. “I was looking for a church that practiced what it preached. We would not be able to do what we do without their support and generosity. When I met with Pastor Vic, he just immediately embraced us.”
The small clinic doesn’t even have a phone, but its wall is lined with handwritten letters of patients who have paid it forward. The stories range from people saving stray cats to running errands for the sick and elderly to feeding the homeless in the park. Shin says his clinic has provided $120,000 worth of service. “If our patients really did what we ask in the community, it’s three times that amount.”
Thriving amid modesty
The neighborhood around the church is certainly no ghetto; it is a modest, somewhat scruffy working-class neighborhood. But it has seen better days. Commercial Center, arguably, no longer deserves the name, and plenty of rough-looking apartment buildings line the small streets between Paradise Road and Commercial Center.
Over the last decade, the church continued to thrive, but its congregation has dwindled; the church eventually closed its high school and middle school and at the same time launched the City Impact Center. Caruso became its point man. A genial Italian-American who looks like he just came from a warm beach somewhere, Caruso knew the neighborhood well. Before he went into the ministry in the mid-’80s, he spent years as a cook at the Sahara and a bellman at the Flamingo. Trinity is the only church he’s known.
He leads me on a tour of the center, spread out over several nondescript buildings between St. Louis and Sahara. The church owns a 12-unit apartment building for low-income seniors. Across the street, in a drab one-story store front, the center also operates a health clinic for kids, which provides checkups and immunizations for kids up to age 18, including undocumented children. The clinic saw 8,000 kids last year. Next door to the clinic, there is the Calvary Downtown Outreach Program, a food pantry open Wednesdays and Thursdays that serves some 100 families a week. (It only provides food for people who live in zip codes close to the church.) Calvary also feeds the homeless on Saturdays, and the church ministers to them.
In the same building as the food pantry — at the other end of a large first-floor open space — is Shin’s medical clinic. At the far end of the campus, directly facing Sahara, is the after-school program. Housed in Trinity’s old two-story high school, the program was started by Greer’s daughter, Brandie Watson, who used to pick up neighborhood kids after school in a van and drive them to the center. The program is divided into two sections, for young kids and for teens and it serves more than 100 kids, providing a gymnasium, a pool, a weight room, along with movies, arts and crafts activities, afternoon meals and study space.
Do good — and do a lot of it
Greer and Caruso thought they were going to help the needy, and they do, but it’s not just the homeless or poor. It’s also the guy who lost his job, lost the nice house, and has seen his savings and health insurance dry up.
“The average family is two paychecks away from the curb,” says Caruso. “It looked like the worst time to ever do this. It was the best time to do it. The services are needed now more than ever.”
With the exception of the after school program, the church didn’t so much start these programs as import them — finding space on its campus for other social service providers that had lost their old spaces in the recession.
Faith-based service groups have always been the stopgap “when the government couldn’t or wouldn’t help,” says Ramona Denby-Brinson, a senior research scholar at UNLV’s Lincy Foundation. “Not so much because they have the deep pockets, but because of their compassion, and they have flexibility around eligibility.” In other words, less bureaucracy.
But the City Impact Center is part of a movement that is likely to grow in the social services world — wherein formerly independent providers collaborate or team up to leverage their resources and make delivery of services easier for clients. In other words, instead of getting a check-up and picking up food from opposite ends of town, you can do both here. “It’s more humane for groups to work together,” Denby-Brinson says. “Partnerships will be the way we continue to go. It’s a better way to serve people.”
The trend will also continue because funders want to see service providers offer longer-term success plans. “It’s not just quantity and quality, it’s durability,” says Tom Chase, CEO of Nevada Health Partners. “The dollars are certainly tighter.”
There is an ad-hoc feeling to the center. You can drive by it and not have any idea that you were in any kind of coherent social aid center, the way you do when you visit, say, Catholic Charities’ campus north of downtown. Greer and Caruso are clearly still finding their way. But they’re doing so with giant hearts.
So are their providers. Midweek at the Helping Kids Clinic, there’s an unexpected lull in the clients coming in; the clinic has already seen 18 people today. In a 12-month span between 2010 and 2011, the clinic has seen 30,000 kids. One of them is 5-year-old Jhaimir Sims, who is in with his mother, Nashara, to pick up records for a recent vaccination shot he received at Helping Kids. Kids are usually vaccinated by the Southern Nevada Health District, but those shots can get expensive. Here, they’re free.
“It’s a very positive experience,” says Nashara. “When I needed his shot I didn’t have $35 to pay for his shots.”
The future of benevolence
The church commissioned the UNLV School of Architecture to write a report that may serve as the opening act of a redevelopment of the site. It’s working with the Nevada Community Foundation to raise funds. There’s room on the campus for new construction — possibly more senior housing or even retail — as well as an expansion of services the center already provides. Meanwhile, the center is launching computer training classes, thanks to donations from Rent A Center and Cox Communications. And Greer talks excitedly about the prospect of moving the homeless all the way to home ownership with a suite of services.
Still, running the City Impact Center is expensive. It takes $20,000 a month. In the last few years, the church has laid off 11 employees, including four full-time pastors, to keep expenses down. The center is running largely on gifts and donations. (Caruso showed off a small construction job to install solar panels on top of a carport; funded with federal stimulus money, the church hopes the project puts a dent in electricity bills.)
But there’s a philosophical crossroads ahead as well. Trinity is in the process of separating itself from the City Impact Center by creating a new board. The move should make it easier for the center to attract donors and supporters, but it has raised an interesting internal question about how heavily religion should be stressed at the center.
Already, if you drive down Sahara, you’ll notice that “Trinity Life Center” has been scrubbed off the City Impact Center building. A consultant to the church recommended that Greer separate the church’s ministry work from its social service work, so as not to scare away potential donors or grantors. In other words, no preaching at the City Impact Center.
The irony for a church that has done so much to change its image — that has refused to take the easy way out when it comes to servicing the community — is that now it is trying to hold onto its core identity. Though he hates the word “religion,” Greer doesn’t want the City Impact Center to lose its essence — a place where people can come to know Jesus.
“We’ll help anyone who needs help,” he says. “But you can’t rip the heart out of what motivates us to do what we do.” Whatever form it takes in the future, the City Impact Center promises to continue to have plenty of just that — impact.
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