New Wellstone community center opens in St. Paul

The new Wellstone Center
The Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building in St. Paul celebrates its grand opening this weekend.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

The new Neighborhood House is down a side street on St. Paul's west side, in the heart of the city's Latino community.

The three level, 93,000 square-foot building is made of steel, glass and stone. Panoramic windows overlook the homes and businesses of the families Neighborhood House serves every day.

The rotunda of the Wellstone Center.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Inside, visitors are welcomed by a large rotunda and an open room with a fireplace.

Down any hallway or up the stairs, on any given day, Neighborhood House offers 14 different programs for immigrants and refugees.

Last year, Neighborhood House served 750 people through its English Language Learning program. In the new building, 200 people a day are coming to take classes. One of the students in this class is 30 year-old Norma Rios.

"I have the best teacher in Minnesota, she's a very good teacher," Rios says.

Norma Rios was born in Mexico. She takes English classes at Neighborhood House four days a week.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Like Rios, about half of those enrolled in the English language program are from Latin America. The other half are a mix of Hmong and East African refugees. A small percentage of people are from other parts of the world, including Russia and Vietnam.

Rios, who was born in Mexico, has been in Minnesota for about five months. She takes classes at Neighborhood House four days a week.

"I have to learn English because it's necessary living in United States," Rios says. "I have a chance to get a better job, to have a better life."

Neighborhood House offers up to 20 free language classes a day.

Program manager Brad Hasskamp says the philosophy behind the English Language Learning program is more than just teaching English.

The computer lab
The computer lab at the Wellstone Center.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

"We're trying to build a community here with our learners and working with our learners, and learning from the learners, having everyone share their story, so they can have a voice," Hasskamp says, "and help build and participate more fully in the community, and gain a real leadership role, and help them feel that they belong here and that this is their country, too."

And that's where Paul and Sheila Wellstone fit in to the Neighborhood House story.

Paul Wellstone was a two-term Democratic senator from Minnesota. He and his wife Sheila died in a plane crash in October, 2002.

Neighborhood House President Dan Hoxworth says Wellstone's association with his organization started with making Hmong refugees feel at home in Minnesota.

Brad with student
English Language Learning Program Manager Brad Hasskamp with a student in the computer lab.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

"Neighborhood House is known as the birthplace of the Hmong Naturalization Act," says Hoxworth.

The Hmong Naturalization Act gave citizenship to Hmong veterans who fought for the United States during the Vietnam war. It was sponsored by Wellstone after he met with Hmong veterans groups at Neighborhood House's old facility.

Hoxworth says Wellstone maintained his ties to the Hmong community, and returned often to meet with refugees at Neighborhood House. Hoxworth says just before Wellsone died, he was trying to help Neighborhood House secure federal money for a new facility.

After his death, Congress authorized $10 million for the new building, and designated it as a national "living memorial" to Paul and Sheila Wellstone.

The $25 million center includes two full-size gymnasiums, eight classrooms, a 266-seat theater, two computer labs and a food shelf.

Mumye Bisharon
Somali refugee Mumye Bisharo works at the Neighborhood House food shelf.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Hoxworth says while the English Language Learning program (ELL) is the most visible service at Neighborhood House, the food shelf is the biggest, serving about 6,000 people a year. Hoxworth says the food shelf is the doorway to other services at Neighborhood House.

"Right then we start building connections with that family," Hoxworth says. "We're really all about building relationships, ultimately. And so we will connect them to our programs, whether it's our ELL or they need activities for their youth, or they want to participate in one of our cultural support groups so they can learn from some of their peers."

Hoxworth says the origins of Neighborhood House go back to 1897, as an outgrowth of a settlement house serving Russian and other Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

Hoxworth says Neighborhood House has provided services to more than one million people since it opened in the late 1800s.

This mural is being installed on an exterior wall of the center.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

The Center has served Gilbert de la O's family for decades.

"With my granddaughter enrolling in childcare a few years ago," de la O says, "that makes four generations of my family that has used Neighborhood House services over the years."

De la O's grandparents came to the U.S. from Mexico during the 1910 revolution, and his family worked in the fields in southern Minnesota. Gilbert was born in New Ulm, but came to St. Paul as a young boy.

De la O says he had some trouble adjusting to life in St. Paul and was labeled a "juvenile delinquent." But he says Neighborhood House provided him with the support he needed.

He believes in the place so much, he's been associated with it for more than 50 years, initially as a participant, and as an employee since the 1970s.

Old site
The old Neighborhood House building.
MPR file photo

"This is what I really believe Neighborhood House is about," de la O says. "And I'll say this through a quote I saw a long time ago. And it's something that goes like this: 'To the world, we may be one person, but to one person, we may mean the world.' And I think that's what's happened here."

"I wouldn't be where I'm at today without the help of certain individuals here at Neighborhood House, and hopefully we're going to continue that work here," says de la O.

This weekend, Neighborhood House celebrates the opening of its new facility, the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building.

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