August 8, 2018

In this Rust Belt town, immigrants felt unwelcome, but a grassroots community center is changing that

Renewal Awards winner Hazleton Integration Project was born out of a need for unity in its Pennsylvania town

Hazleton One Center recently celebrated its community's growing diversity at Community Day. Photo courtesy of Hazleton Integration Project


Hazleton Integration Project was one of 10 recipients of this year’s Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate that recognizes nonprofits driving positive change in their communities. Throughout the year, we will be following up with the winners to see how they are continuing to serve their communities.

The amount of media attention and good will generated by The Renewal Awards has been truly extraordinary, and subsequently, the Hazleton Integration Project (HIP) has found itself with a much louder voice on a much wider stage. These days people seem to pay more attention when we speak. At the award ceremony, our five organizations were honored for, “affecting thousands of lives and serving as role models for other organizations grappling with how to drive change in communities across the country.” This is of central importance to us because we have always felt that part of our mission is to tell the HIP story to others who may use it as an inspiration to create action in their own communities.

Last month on what was the hottest day of the summer, with temperatures soaring to nearly the century mark, more than 500 people of all ages showed up at the Hazleton One Center to celebrate our growing diversity at Community Day. Families were entertained by music from different cultures, kids played games and danced, and nearly everyone ate too much great food—tastes from all over the world. You would be right if you think this sounds an awful lot like any of a thousand other festivals taking place all over the country. So, what exactly made this day more than a bit out of the ordinary?

First, a bit of context. Until the early part of the 20th Century Hazleton, Pennsylvania, may well have served as the poster child for small “Rust Belt” cities. But the second half of the century was characterized by decline. Having already suffered through the economic calamity that followed the demise of the anthracite coal industry in the mid-20th century, the largely Italian, Irish and Eastern European residents of the city were dealt another blow when manufacturing shifted overseas in the 1980s and 90s. Population dwindled, shops closed their doors, and the once thriving downtown emptied.

By the early 2,000s the economy transitioned once again, and with it a new population began to arrive. At first a trickle, and then a steady stream of Latino families who had been living in and around New York City found their way to Hazleton, lured by thousands of warehousing jobs that grew out of burgeoning Internet sales. In less than 10 years, the number of Latino residents increased from a statistical anomaly to 40 percent, and the population erosion that had been occurring for a half century actually reversed, increasing 10 percent in the years between 2000 and 2010. Wary residents however, perhaps reflecting decades of disappointment, perceived the new culture as distinctly foreign, more of an invading force than a new group of Americans. And this perception was amplified by the fact that this particular group of newcomers spoke English with heavy accents, if at all.

The animosity between the immigrants and the long-standing residents worsened in 2006 when the city voted to implement the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act,” an ill-fated attempt at wresting authority regarding immigration policy away from the federal government and placing enforcement in the hands of local politicians. The years following proved to be among the darkest in the city’s history. Long-standing residents hardened their feelings toward the newcomers who, in turn, expressed growing resentment for being singled out unjustly. The city was effectively split, both socially and economically.

Against this backdrop, the Hazleton Integration Project was born. Five years ago, under the steady guidance of Chicago Cubs Manager and Hazleton native Joe Maddon, HIP opened its doors to a new community center to provide educational, cultural, and athletic opportunities to underserved children. Additionally, we added what proved to be a controversial statement, that HIP would “endeavor to foster trust and respect among all our area’s cultures.” Joe and his wife Jaye were adamant about doing everything possible to provide a gentle push to get the city back on the right track and ease tensions between the newcomers and the longtime residents. My wife Elaine and I shared their passion for the city. Most importantly, we all firmly believed in the basic decency of the people of Hazleton. As soon as we made the decision to put out feelers seeking support from the community, we found others from both sides of the political aisle who not only shared our vision but were willing to put themselves on the line. Other local organizations that were engaged in their own efforts to find humane solutions to the city’s problems welcomed HIP’s voice to what was become an expanding chorus.

The success of our recent Community Day serves as a perfect example of just how far the city has come in the past five years. HIP events have grown steadily in both size and the diversity of the crowd. There have been other verifiable changes as well in attitudes within our community. Online news articles about HIP no longer carry a litany of negative responses. Support from businesses and other organizations has broadened. Journalists from all over the world have begun to recognize and write about Hazleton’s progress. Even the divisiveness of the 2016 presidential election failed to jolt the residents back into the hardline stances so prevalent in the past.

Perhaps nothing speaks about the heart of a community more than the volunteers who choose to make the world a little brighter by serving others.

I think it is entirely accurate to describe Hazleton today as having passed the proverbial “tipping point.” We are a city confronting problems with real world solutions and looking ahead to what a growing number of people are coming to believe will be our best days. No unicorns prancing, no rainbows with pots of gold. After a challenging period we are coming to terms with immigration and arriving at a place where diversity is not only accepted but celebrated.

And in that same period our center has grown from employing just one person to a full-service organization: open seven days a week with six full-time and a dozen part-time employees. Literally thousands of people come through our doors every month. Our Pre-K and After School Scholars program are fully licensed and certified by the state, and our athletic programs provide a safe haven and structure for hundreds of our area youth. Additionally, we enroll more than 100 adults in ESL courses annually and offer classes in computers, citizenship, and GED, among others.

The one constant throughout our growth has been the overwhelming support we have received from our volunteers. This cannot be overstated. If not for the thousands of volunteer hours we receive every year from people of all ages and backgrounds there simply would not be a Hazleton One Community Center. The initial belief we had in the decency of the people of our city has paid off handsomely.

I think it is a pretty safe assumption that there are many people who want to do something that registers on their own moral compass but are uncertain how to go about it. Obviously, not everyone is in a position to open a community center. But nearly everyone lives in or near a city where community centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, and other social service organizations offer many of the same programs we have at HIP. I promise you every one of those, and dozens of other organizations, would love to have you walk in and fill out a volunteer application. That one simple act might just be the catalyst that changes the life of a child in need. It may well change yours. Perhaps nothing speaks about the heart of a community more than the volunteers who choose to make the world a little brighter by serving others. As “Radio for the Blind’s” inspirational Marjorie Moore said so eloquently, “Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.”

Bob Curry

Hazleton Integration Project

Bob Curry is the Founding President of the Hazleton Integration Project.