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Tacoma Community House: An Evolving Ministry

Filipino class, circa 1940.
Filipino class, circa 1940. Courtesy Tacoma Community House

By Derrick Rhayn

Throughout 2010, Tacoma Community House (TCH)—long supported by United Methodist Women—celebrated 100 years of ministry as a national mission institution of The United Methodist Church.

(This article originally appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of New World Outlook, celebrating of 100years of mission service. It is used by permission.)

This 12-month Centennial Celebration provided an opportunity to highlight the institution's contributions to the community and to remember its history. Over the years, TCH has adapted to the shifting needs of its newest community members, offering a safe location for them to acquire skills, make connections, and learn about life in Tacoma.

The story of this vital ministry begins in 1907, when the Home Mission Board of the Methodist Episcopal Church sent two deaconesses to Tacoma, Washington, to do mission work. Upon arriving, the two settled in a neighborhood now known as Tacoma Hilltop, renting a second-floor bedroom in an Italian family's home. There, they found themselves in the midst of a large Italian community whose needs they could inventory by direct observation. Many of the Italian children in the neighborhood had no nearby place for play or educational activities. So, after a few years of careful planning, the deaconesses opened Tacoma Settlement House on January 10, 1910.

Serving Immigrants

Not only the families in the Italian community but many other immigrant groups in the area needed the services a settlement house could provide in an underserved neighborhood. These newcomers to Tacoma included Greeks, Germans from Russia, Swedes, Norwegians, Syrians, Japanese, and Jewish immigrants from various countries.

Initially, settlement-house services focused on young girls in the neighborhood. Their needs for self-improvement and physical fitness were addressed by activities such as Bible study, cooking, dancing, singing, and sports. These services were hosted out of a house that the deaconesses rented. Soon, however, it became clear that a larger building was needed.

So, with the assistance of local churches and the Home Mission Board, a large three-story building was constructed for the Tacoma Settlement House in 1919. Shortly after, the neighborhood boys showed interest in participating, and many new sports clubs were started. These included basketball teams, hosted in an on-site gymnasium, football and baseball teams, and clubs for other outdoor sports.

Bridging the Divides

To help immigrant children navigate the cultural divides between their old and new worlds, the directors and deaconesses on the settlement house staff drew on their training in social work. They counseled the young people who were looking for personal guidance, explaining aspects of the new culture that surrounded them. For some of the children, they went even further. For example, when Amelia Nasser first came to the Tacoma facility with her sister, she was only four years old. The children had lost their mother during the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918. Now 94, Amelia still fondly recalls Mrs. Thompson, then a co-director, who, she says, "was like a second mother to me." Last year, Amelia's story was recorded as she told how the settlement house had shaped her life. Ninety years after her arrival, on seeing a picture of Mrs. Thompson, her eyes filled with tears.

Changing Name and Needs

In 1923, the settlement house changed its name to Tacoma Community House and opened one of the first kindergartens in the city. The organization also began offering citizenship assistance and English classes to adults. During the Great Depression, TCH operated an employment bureau, a job bank, and a food pantry. Staying true to its mission as a settlement house, it adapted as the community's needs changed.

After the Depression, Tacoma's demographics changed. By the mid 1940s, TCH served people of 22 nationalities, along with an increasing number of African Americans who relocated to Tacoma from the South. During segregation, the community house founded some of the first Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops for youth of color. Around this time, a group of women began meeting at the facility when they brought their children there to kindergarten. Called the Women's Friendly Circle, they met for more than 50 years, pursuing such crafts as sewing and knitting, along with cooking. The only surviving member is in her mid 90s now.

New Focus on Adults

As the decades passed and the world changed, the people TCH served changed too. In the mid-1970s, as the war in Vietnam was winding down, many new youth-service organizations were springing up. So the Tacoma House board refocused its services on the emerging needs of refugees from Southeast Asia. When Saigon fell in 1975, TCH was equipped and prepared to meet Tacoma's influx of refugees.

Over the past 35 years, TCH's focus on adults has grown. In the 1980s, TCH added free English and GED (general equivalency diploma) classes, along with a Language Bank and computer lab. Employment services that began in the 1970s expanded to include services for people with barriers to employment. New welfare-to-work transition programs and youth employment and empowerment services are the foundation of TCH's work today. Other programs include bilingual domestic-violence assistance, immigration aid, social services, advocacy, and citizenship classes. Since the 1970s, TCH has trained more than 35,000 volunteers across Washington State to provide English classes to immigrants. They have assisted about 115,000 immigrants, and have provided self-sufficiency service to over 80,000 throughout South Puget Sound and interpretation and translation services for individuals in more than 150,000 appointments throughout King and Pierce counties.

The Tacoma Community House Centennial celebrates the commitment to ministry that began 100 years ago with the deaconesses' vision of a better neighborhood. The celebration recognizes the thousands of lives that agency staff and volunteers have changed for the better. Looking ahead, our mission embodies the values of inclusion and work toward fulfillment of individual potential as we continue to empower people to improve their lives and become fully contributing members of society.

Derrick Rhayn is the development and communications director for Tacoma Community House in Tacoma, Washington.

Celebrate 100 Years with Tacoma Community House

For more information on Tacoma Community House or its Centennial Celebration, please contact Derrick Rhayn at 253-383-3951 or by email at drhayn@tacomacommunityhouse.org.

Last Updated: 02/17/2011

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