By Anne Marie Amacher
DAVENPORT — Being a good neighbor, and offering a positive presence and a stable foundation for children in Davenport’s central city is what Project Renewal is all about.
And it began after the late Sister Concetta Bendicente, PHJC, noticed on her daily walks to work in 1974 that people in the neighborhood needed help.
“As Sister walked, she saw needs not being met for the elderly, kids or suitable housing in the area. The kids were playing on the railroad tracks,” said Project Renewal Director Ann Schwickerath.
Sr. Concetta’s religious community had a tradition of starting “little houses” among the people and going out to serve those most in need, said Msgr. Mavin Mottet, president of Project Renewal’s Board of Directors.
With the help of Frank Rhomberg, then social action director for the Diocese of Davenport, and her religious community, Sr. Concetta purchased and fixed up a small brick home to provide clothing and some food. The house was called “the Vine,” based on Psalm 80. “But it became confused with a house of ill fame on Vine Street. So we changed (the name) to Nazareth House,” Msgr. Mottet said.
Sister got to know the people in the neighborhood and eventually extended outreach to the children. The red brick house became a second home for them after school and during the summer, giving birth to Project Renewal.
Within the first year, Project Renewal “had a significant impact” in the area, Msgr. Mottet said. “Children were tutored after school — something 30 years ahead of its time. The faculty at Jefferson School noticed a difference right away. There was an outreach to seniors. The neighborhood began to change from hostile to friendly. Volunteers came quickly.”
When Sr. Concetta died, her religious community continued her dream and then turned it over to lay people, Schwickerath said. The director’s position started as a volunteer opportunity, but became a paid position in the early 1990s. A board of directors was established after Msgr. Mottet returned from working in Washington, D.C., in 1985. He has been the president ever since.
The Project Renewal Board oversees the after-school program and raises money to continue its services.
Today, Project Renewal serves school-aged children Monday through Friday from the end of the school day to 5:30 p.m. During the summer it is open for six hours each day, Monday through Friday.
The “Treat House,” located next door to the original brick home, was purchased in 2002 to house Project Renewal. When children arrive, they start with homework and when it is finished, they may use computers, play games, go outside in good weather or participate in other activities. A snack and drink are provided as well. Manners are strictly enforced. Children cannot enter the Treat House until they knock and are told they may enter.
“They learn responsibility and life skills here. We emphasize safety and politeness. You just don’t barge into the house,” Schwickerath said It is s not just a place to play. “We strongly encourage the kids to do their homework. It’s pretty structured,” added Schwickerath, who joined Project Renewal as a summer intern in 1993 and was named director in 1994.
During the summer, field trips are offered — but students must be invited. They earn the opportunity to go on field trips by demonstrating good attendance and behavior. “It’s based on rewards and incentives. It’s a good lesson for all of the kids.”
Schwickerath and assistant director Carl Callaway, who also handles the technology, can’t do it all alone. They rely on volunteers and interns to help with the 35 or so children who visit each day. “We may see 75 or 80 different faces in a year, but we average about 35 kids,” Schwickerath said.
One of the volunteer groups is from St. Paul the Apostle School and Parish, led by teacher Lynn Leming. Each Tuesday and Thursday the students help distribute snacks, assist with homework and play with the kids. Leming said she began as a volunteer and then invited her junior high students at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School and the parish’s youth group to do the same. Students in her service learning class who choose to help at Project Renewal make it a commitment. “They can’t just come two or three times. These children here need stability and support,” Leming said.
As she and her students pulled up in a car to the Treat House on April 8, the Project Renewal youth ran outside to help bring in the treats and snacks for the day. Leming and the junior high students carried in bags with green and red apples, cookies and juice bags. She also brought extra meals from St. Paul’s school lunch program. Individual servings of macaroni and cheese and wrapped chicken strips are a favorite, she noted. “This is all some of these kids will have for dinner.” Aside from the school lunches, Leming pays for snacks out of her own pocket. “It’s the least I can do.”
Another volunteer group is from St. Ambrose University in Davenport. Margaret Honiotess, a junior, said she found out about Project Renewal through a field study class. Ashley Brenski, a freshman at St. Ambrose, was helping at the Treat House earlier this spring as part of work study program. She said she enjoyed the students and being able to help.
Jasnine Randall, 17, a senior at Davenport Central High School, started going to Project Renewal in seventh grade. Now she volunteers at Treat House. “They helped me here, now I’m helping.”
Jasnine said Schwickerath and Callaway are role models, and she also wants to be a role model to the younger students. “I love Ann and Carl.”