A North Waco home once green-tagged as unsafe for habitation has been renovated and opened as a neighborhood social hub aimed at breaking down prejudices, separation and fear.
The Baylor University professor who owns the house is working toward those goals by inviting the neighborhood in to connect with each other and build relationships and a sense of community.
Laine Scales bought the abandoned day care at 23rd Street and Colcord Avenue in 2011 and five years later believes the patience and hard work of many volunteers have paid off.
Located in what the education professor with a social work background calls the most diverse and mixed area of Waco, operations at the small yellow home are based on a practice that started in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Volunteers will live in the house, dubbed the Good Neighbor Settlement House, and a cottage directly behind it and open the doors to community functions in exchange for donations rather than fixed fees.
Many residents no longer know their neighbors, which includes people several streets over, not just in the immediate surrounding area, Scales said.
“We don’t have that opportunity unless we have a space where we can gather and meet,” she said. “Everyone doesn’t walk the neighborhood anymore.”
Four spaces in the 3,000-square-foot building can be reserved for meet-ups: the living room, the library, the drawing room and the backyard. The century-old home also has high-speed Wi-Fi.
Groups interested in tai chi, gardening and books have already scheduled events.
Members of the Good Neighbor House, which became a nonprofit group in 2013 and later formed a board of directors, have suggested uses for the space, including for community groups, classes, informal gatherings of friends and prayer meetings, but the list of potential uses is long. It’s up to neighbors to fill the space with programs they would like to see, Scales said.
Organizers also plan to host recurring events, possibly including a night for neighbors to gather over coffee and snacks and to play instruments.
Scales said it also will be up to the community to support the operations, whether financially or with their time. The main costs will be utilities and insurance.
Scales said the nonprofit group put out a call for “settlers,” or individuals to live in the home and volunteer seven to 10 hours a week offering hospitality to groups. Each settler pays rent, “greatly reduced because they are volunteering,” she said.
Two individuals will live upstairs in the Good Neighbor House, and Luann Jennings and her husband will live in the cottage behind the home.
“I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder when they call us settlers,” Jennings said.
The renovations to the house in the past few months have made a night-and-day difference, Jennings said. In addition to volunteer work, the build cost about $60,000.
Jennings moved to Waco in July from New York, which had several active settlement houses.
“There are lots of eccentricities about it, but I guess if you’ve got a 100-year-old house there’s going to be,” Jennings said.
The idea behind a settlers house is to allow individuals to move into a neighborhood they want to serve, she said.
“It’s not a community center. It’s our home,” Jennings said. “We open our home up to people who want to use our home.”
She said volunteers and members are still working to develop an art studio in a space along the back of the house. She envisions the area as a space to feature artists and musicians.
“It’s been a real labor of love,” Jennings said.
The group hopes the house reaches people who otherwise couldn’t afford community space.
“It’s about allowing the community to do things they want to be able to do without cost being prohibitive,” Jennings said
Scales said the nonprofit group has hosted several events over the years in hopes of connecting with neighbors and spreading the word about the new home. She said the group hopes to collect email and mailing addresses to send out newsletters, but word-of-mouth has proved the most successful approach so far.
“It’s really exciting to finally all see it coming to life,” Scales said.
The house served as the location for the Jack & Jill School from the mid-1940s until the 1990s, which traced its educational pedigree through Waco’s first Montessori nursery school, according to Tribune-Herald archives. Sometime during the 1930s, the Greenhill Montessori School, which was eventually renamed Jack & Jill School, moved from Austin Avenue to Homan Avenue, then to Colcord Avenue during World War II.
Scales said the group would love to see the house be a model for other areas of Waco.
She said the group chose Sanger Heights because it is one of the most diverse areas of Waco. A census analyst shows the population in the area is 50 percent Hispanic or Latino, 25 percent white and 25 percent black. The area’s education and earning levels also are diverse.
“We felt like that’s exactly the kind of neighborhood where people stay to themselves if they feel like their neighbors are different from them,” she said.
Another bonus is the area’s neighborhood association.
Scales said the Sanger Heights Neighborhood Association is one of the strongest in the city, and members are able to pull together to get all types of work accomplished.
The possibilities for the space are exciting, said Fernando Arroyo, Sanger Heights Neighborhood Association president.
Opening the home as a community hub allows residents from different backgrounds, networking circles and skill levels to share their talents with one another, Arroyo said. The hub will also bring activities and classes to people who might not otherwise have access, he said.
“I believe everyone has something to learn and something to teach whether you’re a child or an adult,” Arroyo said.
Sanger Heights stretches from east to west between North 15th Street and North 25th Street, and from north to south between Lasker Avenue and Waco Drive.
Arroyo said he hopes the movement helps highlight the talent already in the neighborhood and helps foster new ideas.
“We have an incredible number of organizers, artists and people in technology and business, and amazing parents who do pretty fun educational stuff with children,” he said.