Q&A: Northside Neighborhood House CEO reflects on nonprofit’s century of service

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / CEO Rachel Gammon is seen at the Northside Neighborhood House office on Monday.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / CEO Rachel Gammon is seen at the Northside Neighborhood House office on Monday.

The Northside Neighborhood House, a nonprofit serving Chattanooga and Hamilton County residents living north of the Tennessee River, on Wednesday will celebrate 100 years of helping those in need achieve self-sufficiency.

Chartered on Feb. 14, 1924, the Northside Neighborhood House, then known as the North Chattanooga Community Center, was established after founders Rose Longgley and Emily Page Schlesinger observed the hardships faced by residents living along the river. When the residents told Longgley and Schlesinger they were in need of warm bedding, the women taught them quilting and sewing, so they would have the means themselves to provide warmth for their families. In doing so, the women set a guiding ethos that would inform the work of the nonprofit for years to come — provide people with a hand up, not a handout.

As part of its mission to promote residents' independence, the nonprofit provides rent and utility assistance, computer and cooking classes and adult education programs, among other services. The organization operates a food pantry, thrift stores and community schools, which provide support services to students and their families. The group also runs Coffee Community Collective, a coffee shop in Soddy-Daisy that connects people in need to resources.

(READ MORE: With jump to nonprofit status, Chattanooga group bridging faith, work rebrands)

To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the nonprofit will host a breakfast event at 8 a.m. Feb. 20 at The Chattanoogan Hotel, 1201 Broad St. Individual tickets cost $50, and table sponsorships cost $1,000. For more information about the nonprofit's anniversary celebrations, visit nnhouse.org.

In anticipation of the nonprofit's centennial, Northside Neighborhood House CEO Rachel Gammon sat down with the Chattanooga Times Free Press for an interview Monday. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Q: How would you describe the evolution of the Northside Neighborhood House over the past century?

A: We've stayed true to our mission and just been able to grow and respond as needs have increased. I mean, for a few women who just saw a need and responded to that need, and for it to grow to the scope of services that we have today and the access that we have to reach and be in relationship with people ... I think it's just a really beautiful thing that we've been able to grow and serve more people but with that same intentionality of just being in deep relationship with our neighbors and responding to their needs.

Q: How has the nonprofit been able to sustain itself for 100 years?

A: I think there are a few things that have allowed us to sustain ourselves. I mean, obviously, the commitment of the community to supporting us has been a major factor. I think the core of the organization's commitment to serving and loving our neighbors well has helped us to always be very intentional with how we're doing our work, which makes it more impactful. I think as an organization we've always been committed to continuous improvement. Traditionally, I think you could find a lane and kind of stay in it as far as, 'I'm just going to provide XYZ services,' but, because we're committed to listening to our neighbors and responding to their needs and being nimble and pivoting when we need to — as long as it's central to that mission of promoting people's independence, it's allowed for us to be very intentional in doing our work.

Q: Chattanooga is home to a variety of nonprofits — what is it about the city that allows it to sustain so many?

A: I've worked with people across the state, and they are astounded by just the philanthropy in this city and the commitment to being sure that our neighbors are taken care of whether it be through our work as an organization or providing early learning for kids or whether it be providing for individuals with disabilities. I think that this community loves its people well and is generous and investing and being sure that folks who might not be as blessed as them are taken care of. And I think that through the years, organizations have learned to work together well to complement each other's work, and so I think that helps us to really expand our impact across the community.

Q: What sets the Northside Neighborhood House apart from other organizations?

A: I think the holistic approach to serving our neighbors in that we provide many different services under one roof, or several roofs, to encourage and support and provide and promote people's independence is very unique. I think we're unique in that we serve a footprint that is often underrepresented and under-resourced, and so people see that and know that and value that we're doing great work. ... I think that motto of a hand up, not a handout, and ensuring that we're not just providing for basic needs but also ... providing (people) with resources to be more stable, then also doing follow-up calls and ensuring that they're following through with some of the things that they said they were going to do, is really incredibly impactful.

(READ MORE: At 100, United Way of Greater Chattanooga continues evolving)

Q: Why might someone in need not want to reach out for help, and what would you say to encourage them to seek help?

A: Around 40% of the folks that we served last calendar year had never asked us for help before. ... It's humbling to have to ask for help, and so maybe that's why sometimes people don't reach out. But for 100 years, we've been committed to providing that hand-up to people when they need it, and there's nothing wrong with asking for help if you need it. And so, I would encourage anyone, if they live within our footprint, to definitely reach out to us, but if you need help, there are people out in the community that are really working to meet people's needs.

Q: What is your hope for the Northside Neighborhood House in the next 100 years?

A: My hope is that we continue to just a) respond to those basic needs, but b) continue to provide programming that equips our students and our families to access jobs that have more livable wages and to provide other connections for folks to really meet bold goals that they set for themselves.

Contact Sam Still at sstill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6579.

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