From the front porch of her house, Dorothy Gasper has a stunning view of the Gateway Arch.
Gasper has lived in East St. Louis, Ill., since 1966. In 1997, she moved from the John Robinson Projects and became the first person to rent and eventually own a home constructed by East Side Heart and Home Housing.
"It's quiet — not a lot of noise," she said. "It's nice. I like it here."
Gasper's neighborhood has blossomed in the past 20 years. It's the reason why it's recently been named Resurrection Park, a testament to the community that has risen from 20 new homes built via what is now East Side Heart and Home Family Center.
Earlier this month, the community organization began work on its 21st home, a 1,900-square foot ranch on Eighth Street near Summit Avenue. Among those helping on site were parishioners from St. Catherine Laboure in Sappington, Our Lady of Lourdes in University City and St. Vincent de Paul in south St. Louis.
Potential homeowners are being vetted for the new home. Whoever is chosen will rent the house for three years, while learning valuable homeowner skills and improving their credit score. Eventually, the homeowner will assume the mortgage.
The neighborhood is located just several blocks away from downtown East St. Louis, which is largely situated on Collinsville Avenue, and a Metrolink stop. Just around the corner is the East Side Heart and Home Family Center, directed by Sparkill Dominican Sister Carol Lehmkuhl.
With the help of residents, staff and other community partners, the organization is turning around the neighborhood by cultivating positive changes and above all, changing the perceptions of East St. Louis, which over the decades had been devastated by deindustrialization, population decline, racism, poverty, corrupted politics and crime.
"I believe in the people here," Sister Carol said. "Between the foundation I got when I was a young nun and my parents who came from a poor area ... I've learned there's a lot of people who are good, just, intelligent and hope-filled, who don't get a chance because they don't get an opportunity. What we're trying to do here is provide opportunities for people to connect."
East Side Heart and Home Housing began in 1995 as a way to offer quality, affordable housing for low-income families. The organization worked side-by-side with the Family Center, which was started in 1993 by Sister Carol and two Brothers of Mary, Norbert Karpfinger and John Laudenbach. Operating out of the old rectory of the former St. Adalbert Parish, the center's primary focus from the start was to build supportive and nurturing relationships within the community. The two organizations merged in 2013.
Besides the housing program, other efforts have included tuition and expenses for attendance at local private (usually Catholic) schools; a senior program with transportation; a Women's Circle, with support for women who are the primary caregivers to their families; an after-school program assisting with homework and improved math and reading skills; and a summer program for children, with older youth hired as counselors.
The center also has a neighborhood leadership committee, which encourages residents to get involved in neighborhood development; political activities, such as attending city government meetings; and a social activities committee.
Tylanise Sanders has experienced firsthand the fruits of the center's efforts. The 19-year-old grew up in East St. Louis, attending the center's youth programs. She also received tuition assistance to attend Corpus Christi School in Cahokia.
Now studying chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, Sanders comes back to East St. Louis to volunteer during her time off, including helping build the newest house.
"I don't think I'd be the same if I didn't go to The Family Center," she said. "Instead of being on the street, I was at their activities."
Vincentian Father Jim Cormack, who serves on the center's board of directors, blessed the home under construction, describing it as a "practical way for people to help themselves. The genius of this is it gives people an opportunity to buy a home on their own."
While the act of building a home is labor intensive, seeing the work being done by so many people coming together is what makes it worth it — especially when they're coming together from both sides of the Mississippi River, said Father Cormack, pastor at St. Catherine Laboure in Sappington.
"The river in some ways can be an artificial barrier," he said. "We shouldn't let it separate us."
Sister Carol agreed, describing the bridges from St. Louis to East St. Louis as "walls, separating good people from meeting and learning from one another.
"The greatest strength and gift that our effort offers our cities is that little by little, we're causing cracks to develop in those walls," she said. "And you know what Leonard Cohen says about cracks ... 'that's how the light gets in.'"
>> How to get involved
The East Side Heart and Home Family Center is in need of volunteers to help with its family programs, including after-school tutoring, summer camp, holiday parties, senior activities, website assistance and computer maintenance. Assistance also is needed with its housing program, including construction and maintenance, landscaping, gardening and meal prep for house builds.
To learn more, visit www.familycenterestl.org. The center also has a Facebook page at East Side Heart & Home Family Center.