For more than a century, the area of Peoria roughly bounded by Prospect Road and Knoxville, Forrest Hill, and Glen Oak Avenues has played home to the city’s "East Bluff ". This iconic neighborhood boasts a long history of providing a stable environment for people of all ages to live, learn, work, and play. At the heart and soul of this community were established schools, each fulfilling a unique quality of life function. Glen Oak, Von Steuben, White, and St. Bernard’s grade schools and Woodruff, Spalding, and Academy of Our Lady high schools all housed East Bluff children. Each provided a unique community atmosphere for families and residents. Over the past 30 years or so, declining enrollments caused White, St Bernard’s, Woodruff and Spalding/AOL to close their doors. While Von Steuben and Glen Oak schools continue to play an important role in the community, the loss of these other important community hubs, coupled with changing physical, social, and economic conditions in the area, created a societal void.
In 2011, to help address some of those voids, a group of committed residents and community leaders formed a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with the specific purpose of developing and operating a community center in the city’s east bluff. The group specifically targeted the vacant St. Bernard’s School at 512 E. Kansas as an ideal, centrally located site. With the mutual goal of service to the community and a desire for an improved quality of life in the east bluff, the EBCC Board and St Bernard’s Parish signed a lease agreement, allowing building occupancy on January 1, 2013.
With seed money from a few friendly donors and a building in hand, the Board and numerous community volunteers set about the task of occupying a building that sat nearly vacant for almost a decade. What followed was indeed magical. Beginning in 2013, and continuing to this very day, a steady stream of volunteers and donations have led to continuous facility improvements, resulting in an ever improving venue for dozens of organizations and groups offering a wide range of programs, activities, and events.
What started with a single Saturday teen basketball event quickly expanded. Within the next months, Boys & Girls Club moved in, and to this day occupy an entire floor of classrooms with their daily afterschool and summer programs. Following that, other entities established bases of operations, while concurrently the gym became a favorite banquet and event hall for family, church, social, and community activities. Use of the gym and kitchen facilities has grown steadily every year since and is truly the hub of neighborhood social activities.
In 2018 alone, the Center welcomed over 13,000 visitors through its doors. Another 19,000 visits occurred with over 75 children participating daily in Boys and Girls Club activities. The YMCA hosted youth basketball programs. Substance abuse counseling services were available 6 evenings weekly. Over 160 families were served monthly at the food pantry, where volunteers served hot breakfast to those families. The gym played host to a growing number of activities, including wedding receptions, birthday parties, weekly senior lunches, civic events, candidate forums, and a neighborhood Christmas dinner. Outside, a large neighborhood garden drew scores of families daily throughout the planting, growing, and harvesting seasons.
It is now evident that the Center is living up to the early vision and fulfilling many of the “quality of life” needs of East Bluff residents. The foundation had been firmly established, but to continue operating into the future will require some fairly significant changes. The first years saw many cosmetic and minor repairs, like painting, new carpeting throughout, furniture donations, and boiler/freezer repairs. The next generation of updates will be more significant, including an elevator to make the facility accessible, replacement of the roof, 75 year old boiler and heating system, and windows. These changes are needed to make the facility more efficient to operate, accessible for more people, and more usable for all. And we must move from part time volunteer operations to full time leadership that will allow for expanded operations, increased community relations, and achievement of funding goals.
To build on the initial success and position the Center to serve the community even better tomorrow, the Board and a dozen community leaders recently updated the Center’s Mission and Vision and established two 5 year fundraising goals; 1) $800K for capital improvements and 2) $700K for operations. With this newly defined roadmap in place, the Board has embarked on a number of actions to ensure the Center is positioned to deliver on these goals. this community. There is a lot more to do, but we are optimistic that the dreams of those founders are well entrenched and will live on into the future.