In the unusually quiet, sunlit Neighborhood Learning Center, a three-bedroom apartment turned resource center for refugee residents, program coordinator Birgit Lemke picked up a clipboard nearly an inch deep in curling, loose-leaf pieces of paper.

“It’s really hard to describe what we do,” she said.

She ran down a to-do list of tasks with which residents new to Garden City and, in some cases, the United States, needed the staff’s help. A trip to the women’s clinic, or help navigating immigration paperwork, food stamps, hospital bills and taxes. A man came in last week asking about car insurance, others come in for translators and transportation to doctor’s appointments and prenatal care. The list goes on.

For more than five years, the Neighborhood Learning Center, part classroom, kitchen, clinic and early childhood center, has sat in the middle of a cluster of Garden Spot Rentals apartments off Mary Street, offering free basic English classes, citizenship prep, health screenings, computer tutorials, healthy eating guides and more within walking distance of the people who need them most.

And, unless LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition, which runs the space, obtains new funding soon, the center will close on June 30, said Callie Dyer, LiveWell executive director.

“... the staff does a wonderful job about … integration into the community, where when people need something in that neighborhood, they are used to getting what they need. They are able to go to that apartment, get what they need and get the help they need. And that’s going to be gone,” Dyer said. “Their safety net in that community is going to be gone.”

The center is funded by United Way and a grant that expires at the end of June, Lemke said. Without it, Dyer said LiveWell will not be able to cover the $128,000 to $130,000 it takes to run the center each year, which includes rent, utilities and salaries for the five part-time community health workers who double as translators for Somali, Burmese and Hispanic clients, among other expenses.

So far, efforts to secure funding through grants or partnerships with other local nonprofits have not been successful, she said. She said conversations with private entities are in progress, but haven’t been nailed down. She hasn’t lost total hope yet.

If the center does close, there are some places for clients to turn to for some, but not all, of the center’s services. Lemke said the center has long collaborated with the Garden City Career Connection Academy for additional English second language classes and career options and with Catholic Charities for immigration services.

But, Dyer said, the Neighborhood Learning Center is unique.

Lemke said more than 150 clients, spanning over a dozen native languages and countries, come to the center every month for classes and walk-in questions, walking over from neighboring or nearby apartments, or driving in from all over town. Since the local International Rescue Committee, itself a haven for refugees learning how to navigate life in American and in Garden City, closed last July, dozens of more clients have found sanctuary at the learning center, she said.

The center is in part such a success and asset because of its location, said Ifrah Ahmed, a leader in the Somali community who knows people who go to the center. Many refugees and residents who recently immigrated from other countries do not drive and, with large families and language barriers, have a hard time navigating public transportation like City Link. Getting to GCCC classes halfway across town is a sizable barrier for many, she said.

That access is especially important for women who spend most of the day at home caring for children while their husbands are at work, Ahmed and Lemke said. The center not only can provide transportation to appointments, but also can provide staff to watch and teach their young children for free while the women sit in on English classes or other center programming.

“It was a big go-to for people. That’s where they went, and every time you'd see somebody there they were trying to get themselves better,” Ahmed said. “In a way it was kind of a safe haven of the neighborhood.”

Community health workers can also check blood pressure and blood sugar on site and connect clients with health services, including free clinics and screenings that can save lives, Lemke said. Once, a client found out she had an aggressive form of breast cancer after staff knocked on her door to offer it to her. They’ve connected others to necessary surgeries and cancer treatment, she said. Recently, they’ve helped a woman understand how to care for her son diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

And many local nonprofits and institutions, from Genesis Family Health to Family Crisis Services to Garden City USD 457 to the Garden City Police Department, have held classes at the center, breaking down dental health, school district policies, prenatal care, tobacco infractions, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault and a series of other topics.

They are a chance to spread information, but also for local entities to meet refugee and immigrant communities where they can access it and feel comfortable, said GCPD Sgt. Lana Urteaga, who has run several classes.

Clients come to the space holding letters from their children’s school or phones on the hook with officials they do not understand, said Khaing Pyi, a community health worker at the center. At the center, everyone is a friendly face, she said. There’s comfort and trust, like a second home, she said. Without it, questions will go unanswered, resources unknown and unused.

The center will run as usual until its last day, Lemke said. It will still kick off its refugee support group next month and collaborate with USD 457 to bring free or reduced lunch students meals through June. Even after the possible close date, some partner programs, like Conversation Circles to practice English and healthy eating programs with the Kansas State University Extension Office, will likely go on at other locations. LiveWell staff and community health workers will still answer clients’ questions as often as they can.

But, the full force of services, classes and programming and the familiar environment that has become a safe haven for hundreds and a connection point for entities trying to build relationships with the entire community will be gone.

“We really do make a difference in people’s lives and strengthen the community through that,” Lemke said.

The Neighborhood Learning Center will be open until June 30 and is still seeking funding options. To contact LiveWell about the center or potential alternate funding, call the office at 620-765-1185.


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