Jacob was one of 42 school-age residents waiting for the bus outside Dream Center Peoria the first week of school in August. The 24-hour emergency shelter for women and children saw a significant increase in need the third quarter of 2023 with 425 new guests, including 139 children. Jacob and his mom were two of them.
“We don’t turn away any single women, moms with children, fathers with kids, or whole families,” says Andy King, executive director at Dream Center Peoria, a faith-based nonprofit in downtown Peoria with a mission to help families living in poverty.
“We’ve been running between 140 and 150 guests each night seeking safe housing,” King explains. “Our shelter has served over 1,000 people this year, housing up to 150 guests per night, but we can always find room for one more mom and child if needed. The average age of our homeless guests is 9 years of age.”
King says people show up for all different reasons. Some are escaping abusive situations. Some lost their jobs and can no longer pay rent. Others have been living in their cars with their kids, and the nights are getting too cold. Some have mental health or medical conditions that create a financial crisis.
“Dream Center Peoria aims to end homelessness within the families we serve,” King explains. “We help families and individuals at the lowest points in their lives with love and acceptance, with a network that can help them back into a productive life.”
Dream Center Peoria focuses on children’s physical and mental health while they are residents at the center, and their parents work to regain housing.
“Our new health and fitness education program motivates homeless shelter guests, after school students, and youth in our summer camp program to pursue long-term health goals,” says Denise Bailey, Dream Center's director of development. “We want to provide a place for the kids to exercise and teach them about healthy food choices.”
With the help of a Blue Impact℠ grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, Dream Center Peoria is building a playground and fitness area in its indoor track area. The center also plans to purchase materials and supplies like curriculum for the students and educational materials for measuring and tracking fitness progress to carry out the educational portion of the endeavor.
“Our goal is for kids to establish healthy practices they can carry into adulthood,” Bailey says. “Kids in the program will participate in a physical education course to promote fitness and reduce obesity. The BCBSIL grant couldn’t have come at a better time because our needs have grown. BCBSIL has made it possible for us to continue serving with excellence.”
“We’re so excited to support Dream Center Peoria’s work to help end homelessness and provide children with a safe place to exercise while they’re residents,” says Katie Cangemi, BCBSIL senior program officer of community investments.