On a cool September morning, volunteers set up a canopy near a sidewalk in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis. Behind them, a couple of others harvested green beans, Swiss chard and tomatoes from a community garden, placing them on a free table at the corner.
Thomas Kraeger and his mom, Molly, helped carry boxes of green beans, baked beans, canned meat, soup, cereal and some paper goods, among other items. It was Saturday, time for the twice-monthly food distribution event hosted by Claver House, a resident community in the Ville near St. Matthew the Apostle Church.
Some residents walked to work, waited for a bus ride or congregated with one another in front of the Homer G. Phillips Senior Apartments, while others lined up near the canopy to pick up a few items as they chatted with volunteers.
Thomas, a junior at Saint Louis Priory School, has assisted at Claver House as part of the Young Men’s Service League, a service organization for young men in high school and their moms. Even though he was in the thick of studying for AP classes at school, he didn’t want to miss out on being at Claver House that morning.
Martha Parnell, a resident at the Homer G. Phillips Apartments, tries to visit Claver House residents and volunteers whenever she sees them in the neighborhood. She filled a small wagon with canned goods, a few rolls of toilet paper and some locally made frozen meals. The food distribution, she said, is a wonderful demonstration of neighbors being there for each other.
“It means a lot to me,” Parnell said. “Especially when I might be running low at the end of the month. They’re always thinking outside of the box with ways to help the community.”
Thomas said what keeps him coming back are the relationships he’s formed with residents, mostly with children that he met through a summer camp held in July. “You build a really close connection with each kid, since it’s kind of a smaller camp,” he said. “They ask if you’re going to come back the next day. You can tell the kids are excited because you’re there, and you get excited, too.”
The relationships formed among residents and volunteers are one of the fruits of Claver House, which was started by Revitalization 2000 Inc., a nonprofit established in 1998, including members of St. Matthew, to promote positive change in the neighborhood. The organization also is part of The Ville Collaborative, which includes businesses, residents, neighborhood organizations and churches located in the historic African-American neighborhood.
The food distribution is one of the many ways in which several Catholic parishes in the archdiocese have supported neighbors in the Ville, through their donations and volunteer hours, said Steve Hutchison of Revitalization 2000. Claver House also hosts science and literacy-based enrichment activities (Project Read and Feed and Science Saturdays) for grade school age youths, a gardening program and the kids’ summer camp. Several years ago, volunteers began an after-school program at nearby Hickey Elementary School to teach children flight simulation via students and instructors with the Parks Department of Aviation Science at Saint Louis University.
Stephen Belt, an associate professor of aviation science at SLU and one of the founding members of Claver House, said that building community is at the heart of what they do. “The thing I return to is at its core, Claver House is about community,” said Belt, who attends St. Matthew and lived at Claver House in the early days. “How do we foster community? How do we foster relationships? How do we respond to each other’s needs? In some ways, I want to get away from the charity aspect of it and get deeper into relationships.”
Claver House has counted among its residents anyone from undergraduate students to retirees. Several Notre Dame University students lived there in the summer, and now the house has one resident, with the hopes of adding more in the coming year. Nurettin Dinler, a visiting research scholar from Ankara, Turkey, who is pursuing a doctorate in aviation science at SLU, has been living at Claver House for nearly a year.
“I’ve loved gaining knowledge about the community and American culture,” Dinler said. “This house is an amazing experience for me. Saint Louis University has a different mission … the education is about lifelong learning. Look at Dr. Belt. He is a college professor and busy with school projects and teaching classes, but he is here on the weekends with the community.”
Claver House “offers an opportunity to enter into this neighborhood as a neighbor, and that’s pretty profound,” Belt said.
Claver House Community Ride and Open House
A bike ride to support the mission of Claver House will take place on Saturday, Sept. 16. Routes of 5 and 20 miles will begin and end at the Clocktower on Saint Louis University’s campus, with lunch to follow at Claver House.
Registration is at 9:30 a.m., and both rides begin at 10 a.m. An open house will take place from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at Claver House, 4155 Kennerly Ave. in north St. Louis. To register for the ride, visit www.claver-house-ride.com.
To learn more about Claver House and its mission, including residential opportunities, visit www.revitalization2000.com or email Stephen Belt at [email protected].