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Building dreams

Group hopes to offer its many services under one roof


Like the children it helps guide through the public school system, Children and Family Urban Movement can dream big about its future.

Earlier this week, the Des Moines City Council approved a land sale to the 25-year-old nonprofit organization that will allow the group to deliver its multiple programs under one new roof in a new 20,000-square-foot building at Ninth Street and College Avenue.

Location is important for this project, as is design. 

CFUM and the services it inherited from inner-city churches have been a part of the River Bend and King Irving neighborhoods since the late 1960s. The 1-acre slice of city property that the nonprofit will occupy once was home to Des Moines University and later Dowling High School.

It has been a bit of sleeper organization, but it plays a significant role in the neighborhoods it serves.

“My experience with CFUM is that we are a hidden gem in the services we provide because we have stayed very geographically focused to serve the needs of a very needy community. And we have many families that have told us that our connection with their students is what made a difference in their student being able to graduate high school; maybe their child was the first to go to college,” said Laine Mendenhall-Buck, president of the CFUM board and director of school/community relations for West Des Moines Community Schools.

The goal behind the design of the two-story brick, glass and metal structure has been to create a “humble yet recognizable marker” in one of the city’s most economically, socially and racially diverse neighborhoods.

For Mendenhall-Buck, chair of the CFUM board, this is a project where the organization, developer Jake Christensen and designer Slingshot Architecture are of one mind.

“Jake took a look at our needs to build something that will last for decades but would not be overly gratuitous in design,” she said.

And those dreams of a bigger future, they come into play as well.

“What I love about it is that it allows us to dream big about what we do down the line,” Mendenhall-Buck said.

What CFUM does in the present is provide educational programs, food for children and families, and other support services. For now, its offices are at Trinity United Methodist Church and it delivers its services at sites scattered throughout the River Bend neighborhood.

The organization is committed to providing a bridge with the public school system that will help neighborhood children get their high school diplomas. Some of those kids return as college grads to tutor other neighborhood youths.

To get an idea of its importance, consider that 100 percent of neighborhood children who use CFUM programs get their high school diplomas. Neighborhood kids who do not use the programs have a 60 percent graduation rate.

“We want these kids to stay on track or catch up if they’ve been behind academically,” Mendenhall-Buck said. “We focus on reading, math skills and other curriculum support to make sure they are not falling behind and that they are ready for the next school year.”

CFUM provides breakfast for about 80 children every day. It provides educational services for about 75 children in kindergarten through second grade, another 75 in third through fifth grades; another 75 in the upper elementary grades through grade 12. During the summer, 100 students receive academic support to make sure they are ready for the next school year. It is important that reading skills, in particular, do not lag.

A “front porch” concept that is part of the new design is important for providing an invitation to the neighborhood, especially families who use CFUM’s services. But more on that later.

“We encourage families to be involved. We don’t want them to feel like they don’t play a part in this, but we also recognize that some of these families work two and three jobs just to support their families, so we are here to support them; we want them to feel a part of this as well,” Mendenhall-Buck said.

The new building will have a dedicated STEAM room, where the arts are added to the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math. The room will accommodate laptops and the adoption of new technologies.

“This offers the opportunity to have it linked to all grade levels,” Mendenhall-Buck said. “It provides a new set of job skills than what were available 20 years ago. It made sense to add that as a piece of (CFUM’s programs).”

Though it became an official organization in December 1992, CFUM carries on traditions that were launched nearly a quarter-century earlier when Trinity Church started a program called the Breakfast Club, providing the first meal of the day for neighborhood kids on their way to school. 

A program called the Supper Club provided free evening meals for children, their families and virtually anyone else who arrived at the door needing warm food. Trinity and what was called the Inner City Parish, which also included Burns United Methodist Church and Gatchel United Methodist Church, provided the service.

These days, CFUM wants to gather all of its services under one roof, in a structure that invites the community inside. The design incorporates large glass windows fronting Ninth Street and a plaza at Ninth and College that represent something of a front porch for the neighborhood.

And it was important to find a location that provided a clear “line of sight” from the corner of Ninth and College to nearby Moulton Elementary School at 1541 Eighth St. so parents would feel safe about children walking from breakfast to school and, more than likely, back to CFUM at the end of the day, Mendenhall-Buck said.

The search for an appropriate site started with the realization a couple of years ago that CFUM and the neighborhoods it served would benefit from having all of the organization’s services in one location. And it was important for that site to remain in River Bend, where CFUM had a long-established identity. Equally important was the need for more space.

“Our wait lists have expanded,” Mendenhall-Buck said. “We just started K-2 programming in Moulton Elementary, and we don’t have space in Trinity right now. Our hope is that we can have all of our programs housed in one building where we can connect kids of all ages and provide joint learning and leadership experiences for our older students.”

Christensen said one reason he got involved in the project was listening to a former student talk about the boost CFUM provided to his education and his commitment to tutoring younger children involved with the organization.

“I would suggest to anyone who reads this article to go see what happens when the kids come in; it’s pretty profound,” he said.

With City Council approval of the land sale, CFUM is launching a capital campaign to raise the $5 million needed to build the new headquarters and another $1 million to $1.5 million for an endowment to support ongoing physical plant maintenance and repairs, CFUM Executive Director Jim Swanstrom said. Construction is expected to begin in May and doors should be open in May 2019.

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