When Sister Julia Huiskamp DC arrived from Chicago 30 years ago in June, she wanted to work with children and families in East St. Louis, and the best way to do that was to offer a service to the families.
With money from the Daughters of Charity and help from Wendell Johnson, she hosted the first day camp at Griffin Center.
That first program grew into today’s day camps and after-school programs at four sites serving seven public housing developments in East St. Louis.
A partnership was formed between the East St. Louis Housing Authority to provide free space for the free programs that are offered.
To celebrate the anniversaries of Griffin and Sister Julia’s 30 years, more than 150 children and staff were treated to a Grizzlies game July 26 in Sauget where Sister Julia threw out the first pitch.
More than 450 children in grades K-8 attend summer and after-school programs with tutoring, homework help during the school year, computer access, a reading coach and games among a host of other activities.
Sister Julia credits Diane Sonneman who signed on with the Griffin Center in 1989, with developing and expanding the educational component of the programs.
Sonneman is now director with Sister Julia as business manager. “Working with Julia was wonderful,” Sonneman said. “Her approach was so relational to share God’s love.”
Sonneman described their roles at the beginning as “the perfect partnership. She had the social work and I had the educational piece.”
Over the years, many of the children who went through the summer and after-school programs have gone on to college, and a good number have returned to the program as employees.
Alexandra Graham remembers going to Griffin Center as a child, and then bringing her own children to the site for the programs.
Now Graham is site director and Roosevelt Center educational advocate director. Graham described Sister Julia as “everything to me from growing up and using the center to my children growing up and now me having a full time job. She’s everything.”
The programs are supported by a network of volunteers built from the beginning. Looking back over the last 30 years, Sister Julia said the best part was seeing youngsters find out about the bigger world. “Then they began to dream a little.”