North Light Community Center, located at 175 Green Lane, just off Main Street, has been a consistent presence in the neighborhood for more than 80 years, offering child care, raising money for scholarships for local kids and serving as a space for locals to convene.
Irene Madrak (pictured below) is the executive director at North Light and has served in that capacity since 1984. She first started coming to North Light in 1979, as an intern. Before that she worked with the Schuylkill Center and attended Temple University.
Renée Banson (pictured below) is the community engagement coordinator at North Light, as well as the volunteer and rental coordinator. Banson volunteered and donated to North Light for years before being hired.
Recently, more young families have moved into Manayunk and Roxborough. North Light has responded by offering a variety of classes, including cartooning, cooking and karate, for children and adults. It also has the capacity to rent out its community room, gym and playground for events.
Its programs have changed through time to meet the needs of local residents and currently include services such as utility assistance and food distribution, which people can qualify for depending on their yearly income. North Light maintains a focus on youth-oriented programming, with the organization also offering affordable summer camps and after-school care. North Light has a sliding-scale system of payment so lower-income families can afford their services.
What drew you to North Light Community Center?
Banson: Actually, I knew Irene from before. Long story short, I found out a lot about what North Light does. And before I was working here, many years before, I did some volunteering. And I also would donate money. It hit my heart very close. I grew up in a neighborhood, Port Richmond, not the way it is now, the way it used to be, very similar to Manayunk. We didn’t have anything like this in our neighborhood. If we had had a place like this, where we could go for all the kinds of services, emergency things and stuff like that, I know what a big impact it would have had on me and other families in that neighborhood. And so I was very attached to North Light from that point on.
How did North Light get its start? How has it changed in the past 80 years?
Madrak: Let me give you a little bit of history because it was really founded as a boy’s club in a donated building, a storefront down on Main Street, back in 1936. It was founded by a school principal and a police captain, because a lot of the young men that attended the school, where Ann Wright was the principal, had been committing vandalism and some theft around the railroad yards.
The captain came to see her about it and she said at the time that they really were not bad boys, but there was just a lot of stressors because of businesses closing and people losing their jobs. It was 1936, the height of the Great Depression. There wasn’t really a place for young men to gather to do things that were productive.
Next thing, their doors were open. There was no paid staff. They were able to get some [Works Projects Administration] workers that were funded through the government, at that point. It was really just for boys, just a drop-in center. There was really no funding. There was not a plan to sustain [funding] at all and within a couple years it was just bursting at the seams.
At that point it became really apparent that they had grown and they really needed some dedicated funding. So they approached the United Way, which was then called the Community Chest. They then began to formalize and a number of the community business people stepped up to help become that first formal board and to incorporate the place. We were incorporated in 1940.
So at that point they only served boys. They used to trip over the girls on the steps, trying to get up the steps to get into board meetings. They brought it up in a board meeting one night and they decided that they were going to admit girls and they called Boy’s Clubs of America the next day and they said, “Absolutely not.” So they left Boy’s Club and became an autonomous organization. So then girls started in the program sometime in the early ‘40s. Also, during World War II, one of the other things they saw was that a lot of men were away at war and a lot of women had to go into the workforce, and so they really felt they needed more family supports. They were still kind of youth-centric but to serve the youth better they really needed to begin to support families as a whole and improve those conditions.
How would you describe the organizational structure of North Light Community Center?
Madrak: [John Willard, a previous executive director] really liked the idea of empowering communities to change their own lives. And he didn’t like the idea of just providing services without empowering people to decide what those services were, what they really needed. He didn’t believe in top down. He believed in grass roots up. And it really is still a part of the culture of the organization.
I think the way that we have stayed open is we have a really supportive community, both businesses and individuals. We have an amazing board of directors. There is really nothing glamorous about being on our board, yet I get really talented, smart people that work hard for this place.
It’s either a life fit or people really sacrifice because they really care about doing the work.
Our budget is right around $1.1 million, but almost $450,000 is money that goes right out to peoples’ home in food, utility assistance, scholarships. We have a donor that supports college scholarships. We’re up near 70 kids going through school. Up to $30,000 over the four years, $5,000 towards a master’s program if you go within two years, and we administer those kinds of things. So out of our budget, we really operate on a little over $600,000 dollars. Forty percent of what comes in the door goes right out to people’s homes in the community.
What sorts of services does North Light offer? How have they changed over time?
Madrak: We always try to provide a continuum of services because we look at people as kind of wholistic.
We have what we call targeted services, then we just kind of have the community center. So, our targeted services are affordable child care — year-round, after school, summer day camp kind of program. We accept the state subsidy for that and we have a sliding scale, internally, to keep it affordable. So most people that come here, we either raise money to subsidize what it costs or they qualify for the state subsidy. The state subsidy you can qualify for, but you will still be on a waiting list. If you are a grandparent, raising grandkids, you don’t qualify. If you’re a disabled person, if you’re home, not working, you don’t qualify. And we really feel that those are the families that do need support.
The second is we try to keep kids in school, have them succeed in school, get them ready for the workforce, give them access to college. They’re all the supports that we do with teens. So kids job-shadow. We do professional development. There’s tutoring that we work through an outside organization to do. We do soft skills or life skills for work.
We are going to launch a program now. We are actually starting to look with less emphasis on college and more emphasis on some of the skilled trades. Because college debt has gotten so ridiculous that kids can’t get themselves out of it.
And the third thing we look at is just social supports for families. So the biggest thing is the food cupboard (pictured above). Last year we gave away 177,000 pounds of food. Again, that has evolved. It used to be run out of people’s houses, it was a voluntary group and the community used to refer people to it. They turned to us and said, “Would you help us figure this out?” So basically, after a couple reiterations we wound up taking the food cupboard in-house. And still then it would be where you would come and you would get bags of food that were pre-packed. And then we started to talk to people about it. So we moved to a choice pantry model where people come through and sort of shop, based on what we have.
We were able to then increase volume by joining Philabundance and we were able to get Grocers Against Hunger. So we now pickup at Target, over on City Line, Whole Foods in Plymouth Meeting and Acme, up here, every Monday and Friday. And originally it was just really produce. We were trying to get more vegetables out there. When we added Acme, we kind of pushed them for meat. We’re always doing surveys, what works for you and what doesn’t, and people were saying with SNAP benefits we can’t buy laundry detergent, toothpaste, cleaning things, paper towels, toilet paper …
Banson: Shampoo, deodorant and feminine products …
Madrak: The Target partnership gave us more of those kinds of items.
We have this really weak mission statement. One thing about that is that we are never married to any one service. We’re always kind of saying, “How is the community changing? What does the community need?”
What are some of the classes you are offering this fall.
Madrak: We want to serve everybody. We want to be inclusive. We want diverse people, especially economically, to mix because we think that makes a healthier community where everybody knows and understands each other. What we’re trying to do then is get some market-level classes in for cartooning, cooking classes, dance classes. Trying to get people to come in and pay a fee. We still keep it affordable.
Banson: We also, for our after school program kids, if they can’t afford it — they’re already on a really low income level — I always tell them, “If you cannot afford the whole thing and you want your children to take one of these classes, come to me and let me know what you can pay.” And usually, I ask them to pay half.
Madrak: If they don’t have the opportunity to explore it [arts, sports, dance, etc.], they won’t discover if they have the gifts around it.
Banson: Having been an artist my whole life, a performer, I know how important, if you do have something like that you want to do in your life, and you don’t have an outlet for it, it’s really devastating in the long run.
If people want to get involved, what’s the best way to do so?
Banson: I am also the volunteer coordinator. So, some people just call me up, or walk in, but on our website you can download volunteer information. There’s an intake form. It’s very simple. You fill it out and you say what hours you are available. There’s a checklist of things you might like to do. Then I get back to you and try to pair you up with someone on staff. Call me up. Ask for Renée. That’s the easiest, most direct way.
What’s your favorite part about working here, on a daily basis?
Madrak: One thing I really like is it’s never boring. But the thing that I love about being in this role, or the role that North Light plays, is the people that I get to meet — the people that we serve, the people that volunteer, the board, the staff. I know I complain a lot, but I feel like I see the absolute best in people and it amazes me how giving people are. They’re people that I wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise.
Banson: I agree with that, a lot. But also, and this is kind of odd, but the people I work with here, they’re all a bunch of goofballs. The only reason I could stay here is because it’s not in any way like the one job I had that I hated going to everyday, in an office. It’s the total opposite. It is never boring. We’re all so down to Earth.
— Text and images by Jared Johnson.
Good article. They don’t come better than Irene.