By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT – For 40 years volunteers have helped offer a safe place for children to do school work, play and learn social skills through Project Renewal.
In recognition of that milestone a re-dedication of Sister Concetta Park was held July 11. Project Renewal uses the park, which is located across the street from the program center.
Msgr. Marvin Mottet, a retired priest of the diocese, blessed the park, its staff, volunteers, board, supporters and the neighborhood. The re-dedication also paid tribute to the park’s overhaul, which Palmer College of Chiropractic students spearheaded.
Msgr. Mottet said the lot that is now the park was vacant for years. Sister Concetta Benicente, PHJC, lived at the convent at nearby St. Mary Parish and would walk to work through the neighborhood to her job at Senior Iowans (later known as CASI). She saw children on the railroad tracks, a woman who lived in a dilapidated house, and other troubling scenes. She saw the need for a church presence in the neighborhood. She formed Project Renewal in 1974.
For years the program was run by volunteers, who are still vital today, long after Sr. Concetta died in 1979.
Ann Schwickerath, the present Project Renewal director, started as a volunteer in 1991 and 1992, and then helped out during the summer of 1993. In fall 1994 she was hired to a permanent position, which she still holds today. Carl Callaway, assistant director, also started as a volunteer and has stayed “only 20 short years,” Msgr. Mottet said.
Schwickerath said Project Renewal offers a loving presence and empowers children and families. “The main purpose is to be a positive presence.”
The after-school and summer programs offer youths a place to do homework or receive educational assistance, participate in physical and mental activities, and learn positive behavior and social skills.
“I have seen all these kids grow up and seen how their lives have unfolded. It’s amazing that this place ran for 18 years strictly on volunteers. It continues today,” Schwickerath said.
The biggest challenge, she noted, is maintaining a stable financial base. “No funding is a sure thing (from year to year).”
Project Renewal is open Monday through Friday after school during the school year. During the summer its program is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes breakfast, lunch, educational and recreational opportunities, basic life skills and field trips. Some of those trips occur in the evening, she pointed out.
Janee Jackson is one of the success stories of Project Renewal. She grew up across the street from the north side of Sister Concetta Park. “I came as a 10-year-old. My home life was not safe. I helped raise my five brothers and sisters. My only safe refuge was this place where I met a bouncing girl Ann and then Palmer student Carl. They are my family.”
Project Renewal helped Jackson see that there is life outside the neighborhood.
She completed college and graduate school and currently works as children’s librarian at the Des Moines Public Library’s central library. She credits her success to Project Renewal.
Amia, a 10-year-old from the neighborhood, said she started at Project Renewal when she was 6 or 7 years old. Her mom and siblings had gone there. She likes getting help with her homework and playing games. “It’s so much fun.”
Jennifer Katzer, a doctoral student at Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport and project leader for the revitalization of Sister Concetta Park, said, “It has been fun, rewarding and challenging.”
With fellow students, faculty and staff, the Operation Palmer Promotes Play (OP3) project began in 2012. Fundraising started in January 2013, generating $67,000. The project had three phases: First, grading and laying sod in the park; second, planting trees and flowers and installing a new multi-level patio; third, installing new playground equipment.
During the dedication, Duncan and Diane Cameron were honored for their donation of the four-tier patio, which be used as a stage by the youths.
Volunteer Lynn Leming has been helping at Project Renewal for about 12 years. She first started when she was a teacher at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School in Davenport and wanted to get her students involved in community service.
Now retired from St. Paul’s, she said she plans to continue volunteering at Project Renewal. “It’s a family thing.”