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Helen Hunt nonprofits are helping revive the heart of Colorado Springs' Hillside community

January 27, 2018 Updated: January 30, 2018 at 3:07 pm
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This file photo from August shows construction workers renovating the old Helen Hunt Elementary school. The work now completed, a collection of nonprofits housed there are injecting new life into the heart of the Hillside community. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

Almost two years after the Colorado Springs School District 11 decided to close Helen Hunt Elementary, a collection of nonprofits are injecting new life into the heart of the Hillside community.

Between the five organizations - Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, Colorado Springs Food Rescue, CPCD, PEAK Parent Center and the Shandy Clinic - the campus at 917 E. Moreno St. will offer free early-childhood care, clothing closets, foodstuffs, supplies for babies, programs for disabled children, low-cost English language classes and other amenities for families struggling financially.

"The beautiful thing about the Helen Hunt Campus," said Michelle Swanson, director of Family Connections with Catholic Charities, "is that no one organization here can do it alone. Now, we all have the opportunity to work together and tackle the needs facing the families that live here."

The space is the first of its kind in Colorado Springs. Two other former Colorado Springs schools - Ivywild School and Abraham Lincoln Elementary School - were repurposed into hubs for food, coffee and beer.

Even without the lure of Bristol Brewery beer and fresh baked bread, a constant flow of community members and families in need of the organizations' services passed through the halls of the renovated building Saturday during its first open house.

Leaders from each organization highlighted how sharing the physical space facilitates partnerships among the nonprofits. Whether Catholic Charities sending children of the families it serves to CPCD's Head Start child care or PEAK sending teens to Colorado Springs Food Rescue for internship opportunities, the name of the game at the Helen Hunt Campus is collaboration.

Executive director of Colorado Springs Food Rescue, Zac Chapman, commented on the collective nature of the campus' services in terms of food.

"Food security can be seen as a ricochet effect of other wider problems," he said. "The services here help to solve those underlying problems, and we can serve as another safety net in that process."

Colorado Springs Food Rescue will offer a no-pay grocery program on Saturdays, as well as cooking classes, internship opportunities for neighborhood youth and other educational events about food security and healthy eating.

The collaborative nature extends beyond the nonprofits and into the veins of the community.

"We want to unite the history of PEAK with the history of this older neighborhood," said PEAK parent advisor Missy Siders. "If we can have an open heart to the community, it will be reciprocal."

The Colorado Trust - a health foundation aimed at ending inequities in vulnerable populations - served as the community liaison for the nonprofits. Hillside community members told Colorado Trust partners that they did not want to feel like "clients" when coming to the center.

"The neighborhood wanted this to feel like a community space like it was when it was a school and less like a place to go for services," said the Colorado Trust's community partner for Colorado Springs, Mia Ramirez. "They didn't want the space built for them but rather built by them, so they could feel some ownership over the project."

The new playground on the campus, for example, was designed and built by Hillside residents.

The conviction of the surrounding community to make the campus theirs stemmed from the loss of the elementary school as a focal point for parents and kids, as well as fears about what would become of the building before its sale to the John E. and Margaret L. Lane Foundation in May 2016.

"Since the school closed, this space dominated community conversation," Ramirez said. "Community members were afraid of what ... would take place here if nothing was in the building."

What is taking place is a collective effort to help place those in need on a path out of poverty and toward their life goals.

For Catholic Charities, that means focusing on families' strengths and building up from there, said Swanson. The move to Helen Hunt has focused that strategy despite concerns that the distance from Marian House would alienate those without access to transportation.

"The soup kitchen clientele is different than the family setting here at Helen Hunt," Swanson said. "Some of the (Marian House) clientele suffer from mental health and addiction problems, which may not be appropriate for children. It's just a totally different dynamic here."

To help families who can't afford to make the 2-mile trek, Catholic Charities will provide passes and gas cards, as long as those families engage with Catholic Charities' services, she said

The Helen Hunt Campus will host an open house on Feb. 15 for the Colorado Springs community, including donors, community partners and local businesses.

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