About Utah: Little has changed at Neighborhood House

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 6:23 a.m. MDT

Catherine Kanter, president of Neighborhood House board of trustees, stands next to a photo of founder Emma McVicker.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

POPLAR GROVE— One hundred and eighteen years ago. Grover Cleveland was president, Thomas Edison was figuring out how to wire the country, Utah was still two years away from statehood — and a schoolteacher who'd moved to Utah from New York named Emma McVicker decided it was high time Salt Lake City offered a free kindergarten for disadvantaged kids.

Some ideas are so good they never go out of style.

McVicker's brainchild, known at first as the Free Kindergarten Association and later as Neighborhood House, is still going strong. At its current location here on the west side, in Poplar Grove, it exists today very much like it did in 1894, only with electricity and indoor plumbing.

Same concept: to provide daycare and, in Emma McVicker's original words, "instruction for underprivileged children commensurate with that given more favored districts."

Same pricing plan: determined by each clients' ability to pay.

Even the same board of trustees: made up entirely of women.

The 2012 equivalent of Emma McVicker is current board President Catherine Kanter. Like McVicker, Kanter came to Utah from a big city to the east, in her case Chicago. Like McVicker, she has a soft spot in her heart for needy children. And like McVicker, she's doing something about it for no pay.

"I'm in awe of her and inspired by the thing she started," Kanter says as she stands next to a portrait of McVicker in the front hall of Neighborhood House. "I think the fact that we're an all-woman board honors the historical tradition of the women who came before us. It pays homage to the past."

Neighborhood House isn't anti-men, just anti-men-on-the-board. Why change something that's worked for 118 years?

The current executive director, Jacob Brace, is a man, and he's just fine with answering to the 21 women on the board.

"They take very good care of us," he says. "It's all-female but still very progressive. What's really valuable is they allow staff to do their jobs and when we need it, they give us a ton of their time. It's a very active board."

This week, for instance, Neighborhood House is getting ready for its annual Tent Party, the year's biggest fundraiser, and the board members will be out there, as Jacob puts it, "rolling up their sleeves and cleaning out the cobwebs.

"A lot of boards expect staff to do that entirely, but not here," he says. "They're really hands-on. By Saturday they'll make sure this place is highlighting its qualities for sure."

The public is invited to Saturday's fundraiser (you can learn more at nhutah.org), where the objective is the same as it's been for 118 years: ensure that there's enough grass-roots support — and funding — to make it to 119.

The fact that Neighborhood House is not only one of the state's oldest nonprofits, but also one of its most stable, reflects well on the guiding matriarchal hierarchy.

Board members tend to stick around as if they're in some kind of permanent sorority. A term is for three years but there is no term limit and some have been serving for decades. There are women in their 30s and women in their 70s. Many are continuing a tradition started by their mothers and grandmothers. Others were invited by friends.

After moving to Utah from Chicago, Kanter heard about Neighborhood House through her friend and fellow board member, Carol Firmage. That was seven years ago, and now she's just getting started on her presidential term.

What's in it for the board?

"You get to walk down the halls and feel the elation," Kanter says as she looks in the classrooms full of children. "You see how happy the kids are to be here."

It's the same thing Emma McVicker saw.

"There was a need then, there's a need now; there will always be a need," says Kanter. "Our goal is to stay ahead of the curve and carry on, in the spirit of Emma McVicker."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

email: lbenson@desnews.com

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