Ravell Call, Deseret News
Kids from Neighborhood House play "red light, green light" at Sugarhouse Park with the help of Carli Trujillo, back center, and Faye Roberts, left, as Westminster freshmen, staff and faculty participate in an annual service program called Helping Hands Day in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012.

If you are going to help the poor, then you should be among them. That was the philosophy of the founders of the Neighborhood House over 100 years ago. And things haven't changed. After 100 years, it still remains a touchstone on the west side.

It stands as a testament to what a few individuals with a dream and a passion to help the needy can do and those that still keep that dream alive. It became a settlement home much like the Hull House settlement home in Chicago started in 1889 that helped new immigrants adjust to America. Neighborhood House started as a nursery for needy families and later built a center at 715 West 100 South. Milk and crackers were given to children from the neighborhood.

Neighborhood House became an early example in Utah of the great contribution private philanthropy can make by becoming part of a community. It became a place where poor families could connect with volunteers from another part of town that could create a sense of community and caring. For many of us, it became an oasis. Over the years, Neighborhood House was where nursery services where available for working mothers for their infants and preschool children and where their school age children could be dropped off and walk to Franklin Elementary before and after school. It was a community center that helped individuals and families learn skills that helped them become an integral part of the community.

For me, Neighborhood House has become an important part of my life. I was not only one of the kids that lined up to get milk, it was where I got my first job as a group worker after being discharged from the Army. I wanted to have an experience working with children in need, and I was eager to take the job that paid 25 cents an hour. Years later, I supervised a social work student at the present place. The concept of community building has influenced my personal and professional life.

On my recent visit at the new facility, I still found a friendly place — one that smiles and is open to all. Though the outdoor murals were new, as were the programs including those for the elderly, it shows how an enlightened board leadership of a private/non-profit organization can renew its mission and programs to meet the changing needs of a community while being true to its core purpose and core values. It still is committed to helping those in need in a caring and non-judgmental way. There is no rigid means test, rather one of finding ways to help.

The organization continues to depend primarily on private fundraising, with only one-third coming from public funds. It thus is able to remain flexible and innovative in carrying out its core purpose. It shows that community volunteers who are committed to a cause can make an organization responsive to the changing times and needs of a community. Such community-based organizations are successful because they are led by caring people.

Neighborhood House leaders have now initiated the "Neighborhood House Tent Party" as part of an annual fundraiser. The public is welcome to the event at 1050 West 500 South on Sept. 22, beginning at 6 p.m. with a social hour and Urban Gallery V Unveiling, then dinner at 7 p.m. For reservations, $75 per person, call 801/363-4589.

The passion that led me to work for 25 cents an hour at Neighbored House will always burn in my heart. I hope it would for all of us.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.