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Act of faith


Faith has prevailed in the six years since the Eddie Davis Community Center was formally incorporated. ccertainly it triumphed before the center existed, in the years its namesake canvassed the Valley Junction neighborhood with food baskets for people who hadn’t asked for help, but who the Rev. Eddie Davis knew needed assistance. Surely, it was faith that swelled the number of care packages he was able to deliver from a dozen in the 1960s to more than 500 by the time the Valley Junction Residential Association incorporated in 1991 and began operating food pantry and related programs at the Prayer of Faith Church of God in Christ, where Davis was the pastor.

Mel Harper, the center’s development director, had helped Davis gather the food baskets and is one of the center’s most enthusiastic supporters. But even he was skeptical in 1999 when Davis and others involved in the Valley Junction Residential Association began talking about reclaiming a warehouse at 1312 Maple St. and turning it into a full-service community center. The building had been ravaged by the Floods of 1993, and Harper, beaming broadly as he recalls it today, confessed, “I thought they were crazy.”

But once again, faith prevailed.

“God put me in it,” Davis said. “I am in his plan, wherever he takes me. It wouldn’t have been like this if it hadn’t been for God. Even the flood was part of God’s plan.”

Now, a group of Greater Des Moines business and community leaders are placing their faith in the generosity of others. Putting the center on secure financial footing is the goal of one of its longtime supporters, McAninch Corp. Chairman and CEO Dwayne McAninch, who will be joined by real estate developer Bill Knapp, retired banker David Miller, businessman Jim Cownie and Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines Executive Director Elaine Steinger in hosting a “burn the mortgage” fund-raising event later this month.

“We think it’s a good cause,” McAninch said. “It hasn’t been widely known, but I hope people, when they see what goes on at the center, will be willing to help financially, not just at this time, but keep it in their minds all the time.”

The goal of the campaign is to raise enough money to not only retire the $200,000 still owed on the community center building, but also pay an executive director an annual salary, pay center support staff, upgrade the computer lab with a main-frame server and Internet connections, and build enough of a financial cushion to expand programming beyond what can be paid for with the $100,000 to $200,000 the center receives in grants and donations each year.

One of the surprises inside the Eddie Davis Community Center is that it offers services no other social services agency in the metro area offers, and it does so without a paid executive, or any paid staff, for that matter. That’s almost unheard among agencies offering a similar scope of services. Another rarity is the center’s no-questions-asked policy. While similar agencies charge for services on a sliding scale based on income, the Eddie Davis Community Center offers its services – meals, medical care, food and clothing, legal services, and tutoring and other educational enrichment programs – at no charge.

“If you need help, the door’s open,” McAninch said.

Open daily Monday through Friday, the center teems with activity. Students who don’t have computers at home come to use the center’s equipment, which is on loan from the West Des Moines Community School District. This is a vitally important service, volunteer Executive Director Vicky Long-Hill said, because the district is now putting homework assignments online. Lunches are served daily, Monday through Friday, and dinner is offered on Tuesday evenings. Volunteers use donated items and food items from the Food Bank of Iowa, also the source of the canned goods and other non-perishable food items available in the center’s food pantry.

Demand for these services is increasing, not only among West Des Moines residents, but throughout the metro area and in the surrounding counties of Dallas, Warren and Madison. Last month, the center’s food pantry ran completely out of food. “There’s greater need and awareness,” said Harper, who thinks the open-door policy draws many of the working poor to the center.

One hallmark of the center is the Mae E. Davis Free Medical Clinic, named in honor of Davis’ late wife and operated by Healthcare Access Network Inc., which leases the space for $1 per year. Open from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday evenings, the clinic is staffed by medical professionals who volunteer their time, including its medical director, Dr. Erin Herndon, who grew up in Valley Junction; Jeff Dumermuth, head of the city of West Des Moines’ emergency rescue department; and Stacey Cooper, a registered nurse at Mercy Medical Center. The free clinic serves about 25 people each week who go there for a variety of services that include illness and minor injury care; child-wellness and preventive care; childhood immunizations; physical examinations for school, sports or work; and referrals to other medical providers in the community.

Though some of the clinic’s clients are unemployed, others are people with jobs that do not provide health insurance coverage, Long-Hill said.

The center is about to get a boost from the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, which has received a $292,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand its programs to reduce the isolation often experienced by elderly residents and help them remain in their homes and avoid institutionalization. The grant, called NORC, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, carries a $150,000 matching requirement.

The Jewish Federation already operates three similar programs in Greater Des Moines, and establishing another one in Valley Junction builds on the relationship established after the 1993 floods, when the Temple B’nai Jeshurun congregation helped out with emergency food and clothing needs, said Rabbi Berel Simpser, the federation’s director of Jewish Family Services.

Through individual case management, case workers provide outreach services and go to people’s homes, just as Davis did before the community center was formally established, as well as get senior centers involved in public and social events. “For some of them, it’s been fabulous,” Simpser said. “It’s a way for them to get out.”

Because the grant is not automatically renewable, “the hope is that individual cities will find local funding to continue programming,” he said. Obtaining that money is another of the goals in this month’s fund-raising event.

“It’s a great opportunity for seniors,” Simpser said, pointing out that Iowa has the fourth-largest group of senior citizens as a percent of total population. “Hopefully, it will stir a little bit of interest and people will look at it and spend more money on it. It’s a way for senior adult care to be put on the front burner.”

Those outreach services complement an already strong program that backers of the center say can’t continue under current financial constraints. They call it a “jewel in the rough” that has yet to realize its full potential.

“We’re at a critical point,” Harper said. “We have to have some help in order to keep this thing going.”

Increased financial support would ensure that the work Davis, now 91, started decades ago will be continued, McAninch said. “If it weren’t for Eddie Davis, I’m not sure what would happen to some of these people,” he said. “Eddie doesn’t just say he wants to be friendly and help; he lives his life to help others.

“Eddie’s getting old. He needs some help now to get this done.”

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