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Tom Small


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By just doing, Peace House promotes the big ideas







Two houses sit side by side on Phelps Avenue on Kalamazoo's East Side. Together they make up Peace House, a two-home learning center its organizers hope is seen as a benefit to the neighborhood.
 
On a recent July evening, Mike DeWaele and Jerry Mechtenberg-Berrigan sat in an outdoor classroom at Peace House talking about how it all began -- and how and why they continue to pursue it.
 
DeWaele, his wife, Jen, Mechtenberg-Berrigan and his wife, Molly, created Peace House as an oasis for neighborhood kids. It's a place youngsters can receive tutoring or help out in the garden or orchard. They can have fun on the playground, take part in an activity or just make new friends.
 
The four from across Michigan met at Kalamazoo College in the mid 1990s. They bonded over conversation on what could be done to solve issues of war and social divisiveness. Although they didn't know it then, they were refining the ideas and practices that would later be the backbone of Peace House.
 
Jerry and another classmate founded the Nonviolent Student Organization on campus, a group that still exists at K-College today. In what would go on to become Peace House Clarification of Thought conversations, members would gather to use their admittedly remedial cooking skills and have meaningful discussions over dinner.

After graduation, the DeWaeles stayed in Kalamazoo and the Mechtenberg-Berrigans moved to Wisconsin. In 2004, the idea for Peace House was not fully developed, but still, conversations had resumed.

As they tried to choose the best location for their budding project, the couples spoke with Kalamazoo City Commissioner Don Cooney. He recommended the Eastside neighborhood as one of the three poorest in Kalamazoo, and one with the lowest number of social services offered. The couples liked that the larger yards there provided more space for the learning center they hoped to build.

By January 2009, the couples had secured homes next to each other on Phelps Avenue and Peace House began to take shape. That summer, they built a child's dream of a playscape and put in a garden.

In the beginning, Peace House hosted about five kids regularly for its Monday through Thursday 1 to 4 p.m. after-school sessions during the school year. The program has grown to about 35 youngsters who show up on a rotating basis. It is typical to have about 15 kids at a time at the center.
 
As it works to find resolution for the issues that need to be addressed in the community it sponsor meetings to discuss the issues and how to address them in sessions called Clarification of Thought. The Peace House brings in an expert -- whether it be on immigration, international relations, or the nature of poverty in Kalamazoo -- to share his or her knowledge on the evening's topic, more of a question and answer session than a lecture. As an example, at the next Clarification of Thought on Sept. 15, Jeff Spoelstra, a coordinator for the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, will discuss what needs to be done to clean up the Kalamazoo River and how to better take care of it in the future.

Recently, an orchard, complete with cherry, apricot, peach and apple trees joined a full vegetable garden as a source of food and education for the neighborhood where the poverty rate runs at about 30 percent and 38 percent of its families are single-parents with children.

The Mechtenberg-Berrigans have three children, Amos, 6, Jonah, 3, and Leah, 4 months, and the DeWaeles have two, Clara, 3 and Alice, 10 months. While it's certainly an added challenge to raise a family while running what is essentially a school after-school, their kids makes it a more welcoming place for other children.
 
Peace House's mission is based heavily on the philosophies of The Catholic Worker Movement, a group of more than 185 communities, who believe that those who have must do what they can to help those who have not.

Founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, during the Great Depression, the movement promotes nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and an obligation on the part of all of those with privilege to help the poor and underrepresented.
 
Their philosophy is that helping out a neighbor, giving them something to do or a lesson to learn, can stimulate the entire community.
 
"It's a gospel of people actually taking care of people, especially the poor, which is a fundamental element of Catholicism," Mechtenberg-Berrigan says. "Part of the idea is that workers become scholars and scholars become workers."
 
The Mechtenberg-Berrigans are Catholic and belong to Kalamazoo's St. Thomas More Catholic Church, where Jerry works as a youth program director.
 
The DeWaeles also work in nonprofit fields. Mike is a support coordinator at Open Door Next Door Shelters. Jen was formerly an employee of Residential Opportunities, Inc.
 
As a Quaker, Mike DeWaele stresses that people of all religions embrace The Catholic Worker Movement. The Quaker tenets of peace, equality and integrity for all people are exactly what the movement is all about.

The DeWaeles belong to the Kalamazoo Friends Meeting, a local Quaker organization. It has supported Peace House in many ways, especially through the funding of an impressive deck -- or outdoor classroom -- outside the Mechtenberg-Berrigans.
 
While faith clearly plays a big part in the couples' lives, they said they never discuss God or religion with the kids at Peace House.
 
Financially, Peace House is sustained by small checks from friends and other donors. It has received generous donations from the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Kalamazoo Friends Meeting. To retain the integrity of helping their neighbors as regular people the four have no plans to seek out nonprofit status.
 
"It's important for us to do this work as friends and neighbors, not as an institution, just as folks," DeWaele says. "This is Peace House by day, but at night, it's our backyard. It somehow brings a different quality to the work that we do."
 
DeWaele won't take the credit, but he admits great things happen daily in his yard. He says it's the community and the kids who are doing amazing things like rallying together to plant a garden or discussing how to address needs in the city.
 
"We're just witnessing it," DeWaele says. "We're providing the place for it to happen. We want to welcome people to come and take part in that."
 
"I can't believe that this is my life," he says, looking over the wonderland he calls home.
 
For those inspired by the Peace House mission to better its neighborhood, Jen DeWaele's advice is to make sure the idea is sustainable, and the only way to do that is to involve the community.
 
"Peace House exists and is sustainable because there are many, many people involved," she says. "When you invite people to become a part of something that is life-giving, that energy and creativity will multiply itself into something that you yourself could have never foreseen."

Rebecca Bakken is a freelance writer hailing from metro-Detroit and living in Kalamazoo.

Photos by Erik Holladay.


Peace house is located in the East Side neighborhood of Kalamazoo.


Molly Mechtenberg, left, Sally Breyer, and Jen DeWaele are community members who help with Peace House.


Sally Breyer helps finish the orchard that members at the Peace House planted. The orchard is filled with fruit trees.


Latasia Gilleylen, 8, is just one of the neighborhood kids who enjoys craft projects at the Peace House.


An example of one of the craft projects created by the local neighborhood kids


A part of the playground built by donations and community volunteers.


Members of the Peace House believe that helping out a neighbor, giving them something to do or a lesson to learn, can stimulate the entire community.
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