Rachel Horton White
Director of the Parkside Neighborhood Center
“This center is very similar to what I envisioned.”
That vision came to Rachel Horton White, 34, more than a decade ago, after she spent her junior year at Wellesley College studying in Senegal. Today, as director of the Parkside Neighborhood Center in Portland, Horton White is the driving force behind a model for creating community in a struggling neighborhood.
Parkside has the distinction of being one of the most geographically dense and ethnically diverse regions in Maine, Horton White says. A section of Portland between Congress Street and Park Avenue, tucked between Weymouth Street and Forest Avenue, it is an area that has in large part been characterized by poverty, violence and drug activity.
But, as Horton White will tell you, Parkside is much more than that. And her efforts at the neighborhood center are a major reason why.
Parkside Neighborhood Center is a program of the Opportunity Alliance, the agency formed when Youth Alternatives/Ingraham and the People’s Regional Opportunity Program (PROP) merged in 2011. The center opened in 2005, and since then has sought to “respond to what people want and what people need,” Horton White said.
She came to the center in 2008 after earning a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Georgia. The program included certification in nonprofit management. Horton White brought with her a broad range of experience working with youth, with individuals just learning to speak English and with the Department of Human Service’s Office of Elder Services. She speaks both French and Spanish, another tremendous benefit.
Horton White says she excels at multi-tasking, a skill essential to her position. On any given day, she could be writing a grant, helping to provide emergency assistance, planning the weekly family meal the center hosts each Tuesday, or organizing one of the numerous educational programs the center offers. Sixty percent of people served by the center are either new Americans, immigrants or refugees, Horton White says; the needs of the entire Parkside population are extensive.
Horton White chose this type of work for a simple reason: “I need to feel like I’m making a difference for people in my job,” she said.
“I’m helping them work toward a place where they don’t need programs like this.”
In addition to the weekly meal, provided by Wayside Food Programs, the center seeks other ways to foster community and meet genuine needs. An after-school program meets five days a week for elementary school students, and this year a pilot program will offer similar services to King Middle School sixth-graders. The center hosts financial education programs, job skills assistance, distributes donated items to needy residents, and the building in which the program is located, on Grant Street, also houses a DHS office, as well as a city of Portland Community Policing Center.
“Here they feel safe,” Horton White says. “They get to know each other and they’re going to reach out to each other.”