Keepers of Community

Featured Audio

Elbert Clark squats down and looks the future of Mt. Pleasant in the face. Make that "faces".

ELBERT CLARK: Okay, we're going to sing Jingle Bells, now. You ready?

SOUND: Kids burst into Jingle Bells

Murtis Taylor Program Director Elbert Clark and his African walking stick

Five pre-schoolers cluster around the microphone of a karaoke machine, singing songs of the season. It's part of the childcare service --- one of many --- that Clark supervises at the Murtis Taylor Human Services Center, in the heart of Cleveland's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Murtis Taylor has been a part of that heart for nearly 60 years, starting up right after World War 2, as part of the Neighborhood Settlement Movement which, back then, tended to the needs of recent immigrants from Europe. Roberta Taliaferro grew-up a couple blocks from here in the 1950s and '60s.

ROBERTA TALIAFERRO: We had African Americans, Italians, some Jewish folks. It was a neighborhood that everybody kind of moved through.

As head of Clinical Services at Murtis Taylor, Taliaferro focuses on the mental health needs of a neighborhood that has changed quite a bit since her childhood. It's now largely African American and largely poor, with a lot of challenges.

TALIAFERRO: When you're faced with middle-class folks with mental illness, their families often help them. Even if they can't tolerate living with them anymore, they have some means to help them out financially. Poor folks don't have any means to help these folks out. So, oftentimes, they're homeless, they've burnt their bridges, and they don't have a lot of resources to help them stay off the streets.

Kinsman Avenue looks pretty barren through the office window of Murtis Taylor CEO, Ruth Addison. She says it's the result of the flight of the middle class to the suburbs.

Ruth Addison, CEO of Murtis Taylor

RUTH ADDISON: This street, years ago, had little shops, grocery stores and family-owned pharmacies, up and down the street. And now they're gone.

Something else that's gone is the traditional idea of family. Single mothers head most of the neighborhood households, and many of the programs offered at Murtis Taylor are aimed at the issues that stem from that fact. Kinship Care services meet the needs of grandparents or other relatives who tend to children while their mothers are at work. Those mothers and older teens make use of the Center's vocational and school proficiency exam services. And there are always new needs, but Addison looks at them as opportunities to be creative in finding the funding.

ADDISON: Change is what the settlement movement's all about.

Addison argues that her Center's current mission is not that much different than it was 60 or even a hundred years ago, when settlement houses faced a tide of poor immigrants, without the appropriate job and life skills.

ADDISON: Early settlements were about helping people get settled in their community. We've changed, there's a new group of people living here, but we're not an unstable community, because we still have many, many home owners.

Police and housing statistics will tell you that the Mt. Pleasant community is near the top of the list in drug arrests and home foreclosures. On the other side of the ledger, the most recent Murtis Taylor annual report sites nearly 8000 clients who made use of their services, last year.

Roberta Taliaferro, Head of Murtis Taylor's Clinical Services

TALIAFERRO: Mt. Pleasant has a strong, strong sense of community.

And Roberta Taliaferro says her old neighborhood isn't lying down in the face of hard times.

TALIAFERRO: It has organizations that have been here a very long time and continue --- neighborhood organizations…grassroots organizations…Murtis Taylor itself started as grassroots. The community wanted it here. The community still wants us here.

SOUND: Children singing

As the afternoon sun starts to set, some children in the Murtis Taylor Childcare Center vocalize with abandon, oblivious to the fact that a teenager was shot to death, a couple blocks from here last Spring, by a man he was intending to rob. The Murtis Taylor staffers are trying to plant some early seeds in these young minds that there are alternatives to running the streets with your buddies. As Mount Pleasant starts to darken and an evening chill sets in, at least there's some warmth and light in here.

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