Several years ago, when the Pleasant Valley Assembly of God committed itself to reverse rampant neighborhood decay in the Lower Fairview section of Altoona, leaders envisioned a community center that would become a wholesome hangout.
Physically, they're almost there.
But making residents feel comfortable enough to come and hang around at newly named Hope Center is taking time.
Today, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster will hold a news conference to announce a $293,500 grant that - while targeting the neighborhood at large - may contribute to the trust needed for residents to begin frequenting the center.
Shuster, R-9th District, first earmarked the grant in an appropriations bill for transportation, housing and urban development, spokesman Jeff Urbanchuk said.
That didn't get passed as scheduled, so it became part of an "omnibus" bill with a host of other provisions that President Barack Obama signed into law Dec. 16, he said.
The money will go for the church's Nehemiah Project to "acquire, renovate and redevelop buildings" in order to eliminate blight, according to a Shuster news release.
The grant complements a $71,000 earmark from Shuster last year for the Hope Center kitchen and dining area, so the church can begin to hold community dinners.
The dinner initiative will be one of several - all of which are still trying to find their footing or yet to begin, but all of which have the potential for drawing residents, helping them to feel at home in the center.
There's the newly created Hope Community Church, an offshoot or "plant" of the parent church in Pleasant Valley. It held its first service last month.
There's the Father's House, relocated from its longtime quarters on Beale Avenue and 24th Street, which provides food and clothing for the needy.
There's the Wright Elementary School after-school program, which Altoona Area School District will relocate to the center in January. The district will provide staffing and materials, while Hope Center will provide four volunteers, all center leaders.
Staffers help at the Father's House, to establish contacts with potential clients.
There's a financial planning class that ran its course, but which the church hopes to repeat, minus the $100 cost of materials, if possible. It shows people how to get out of debt.
The key is to establish trust, said Phil Luciano, the Nehemiah Project's grant writer. To do that, it's critical to demonstrate that the church is there to stay, he said.
Investments like the center and the anti-blight program to be funded with the new grant will help convince them, Luciano hopes.
It's also critical to demonstrate that the staff is non-judgmental and free of "ulterior motives," he said.
It helps the good word for kids to tell their parents and vice-versa, he said.
Barbara Daugherty, program coordinator of the Blair County Literacy Council, knows how sensitive a matter it can be to win trust - and just to work through daunting logistical problems.
So far, only one resident has been coming to the literacy program, although it's been available for more than a month. She wants help with math, so she can do her checkbook and improve her job prospects.
Two others are interested, so they can get GED diplomas and read to their children. But they have child care issues to work out and all three lack transportation and feel embarrassed by their need to ask for help, Daugherty said.
Yet they're intrigued about the prospect of a better life, a fascination she can see by their impression that the library- just across town - is a faraway, hard-to-reach place.
The Nehemiah Project is a worthwhile investment of government money, Urbanchuk said.
The center has become "the crown jewel in that neighborhood," Daugherty said.
"It's unbelievable how it all falls together," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.