Not everyone knows what a community center is or does.

Thinking of community centers might conjure up some vague imagery involving squeaky hardwood floors, the smell of craft supplies, or weekly fitness classes.

In truth, it’s right there in the name – community centers exist for the benefit of the entire community and they are both a physical location that community members can access for events, gatherings, meetings, rehearsals, or almost any other purpose you can dream of – and a one-stop source for programming, classes, events, or celebrations that community members want to share in together.

SSE’s #tinyboss caught up with Ben Tolle and Nikki Novoselsky from Neighborhood House to learn more about Madison’s oldest community center (101 years!).

Tell us a little bit about the history of Neighborhood House!

In 1916, a UW student wrote an undergraduate thesis proposing the creation of Neighborhood House to meet the needs of the growing Greenbush community.

The late 1800’s saw a wave of new immigrants coming to America, and the City of Madison experienced an upswell of Jewish and Italian immigrants who were shuttled into a swampy, run-down area of the city with dilapidated housing and inadequate infrastructure – what we now know as the Greenbush neighborhood. University of Wisconsin student Henry Barnbrock Jr. wrote a 72-page paper documenting the list of social problems stemming from this influx of new immigrants which sparked the initial efforts to establish a settlement house – and thus, Neighborhood House began as a resource for new Americans to acclimate to their new environment, learn English, connect with others, and find community.

101 years later, Neighborhood House is in its third location in the Greenbush/Vilas neighborhood, currently situated south of Regent Street at 29 S. Mills Street. Over the years and generations the focus has shifted and broadened. No longer an exclusive resource for new immigrants, Neighborhood House has developed into a resource and social hub that stretches beyond neighborhood boundaries into a center that serves the entire Madison community.

What is the mission of Neighborhood House?

Our official mission is to provide high quality programming and social services that facilitate the growth of a diverse, responsible, and welcoming community… and we keep it broad enough to address anything that assists in the overall health and betterment of our community.

What’s beautiful about Neighborhood House is the amount of diversity we see in both the people we serve, their interests, and the different connections they make alongside us. We also believe it’s important to have a physical location where people can connect face-to-face, without technology or screens, and enjoy spending time together in person.

What is an aspect of your work that others might find surprising or unexpected?

There’s a little disconnect in where we are currently located. A lot of people are surprised that a lot of people who fund Neighborhood House aren’t necessarily the people utilizing our services. We’re not currently situated in a low-income neighborhood, however more that half the people who participate in our programming do come from low-income families.

There’s also a misconception where people think they have to live close to us in order to access our services and programming. That’s not true! We serve the entire Madison community and anyone wanting to use our space or enjoy our services and programming is welcome!

What do you wish that people knew about community centers?

We really wish that everyone understood that community centers are for you – the community!

Think about it – how do all good ideas start? They start with people coming together and discussing whatever it is that they need. And if enough people think that something is important, those ideas can become reality.

Essentially, community centers can offer whatever it is that the public wants so long as there is enough demand for it. We host groups with all sorts of interests – medieval sword fighting, Spanish classes, hip-hop groups, Brazilian dance… and good ideas can be shared activities like those, or something as simple as wanting to get together with friends on a Friday evening.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

At Neighborhood House we get to work with people of all different backgrounds, ages, interests, etc., and hear a multitude of stories. The opportunity to regularly cross paths with others who are really different from you also forces you to realize that we are not so different from one another at all.

It’s also wonderful to hear stories about Neighborhood House from members of the community, considering we are the oldest community center in Madison. We’ve heard stories from across many generations – whether events or programs people have enjoyed over the years, activities they’ve created with others, or life moments that they’ve shared with us. All moments of life are recognized here and hearing how much Neighborhood House means to others is really rewarding.

How can others get involved?

Neighborhood House is always looking for volunteers – whether that’s for college students interested in getting involved with our twice-a-week mentoring program, one-time events such as community meals or fundraisers, our summer camp, or small projects that help us keep our space in good condition for everyone to enjoy.

At the moment we’re also hosting a Valentine’s Day fundraiser where people can stop by our website and send either flowers or Gail Ambrosius chocolate to someone special. We will wrap each selection for you and deliver it on Valentine’s Day, and a portion of proceeds will return to us – in order to help keep spreading joy and love throughout our community!

Another nice opportunity to get to know us with less pressure is to stop by one of our community dinners. Throughout the year, Neighborhood House hosts community meals which provide a nice, informal opportunity to get to know others without needing to make a commitment. We hope you’ll drop by!