Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center

Diners Out magazine, fall 1992

Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center:
A Century of Good Works

By Max Millard

In the 19th century, when the industrial revolution was at its crest, both England and the United States became infamous for their urban slums where disease, ignorance and poverty ran unchecked. The concept of trained, professional social workers was not born until the mid-1880s, when a group of Oxford University students founded Toynbee Hall, London's first settlement house. There, they lived and worked among the poorest of the city's poor, gaining their trust and learning to understand their problems by experiencing them first-hand.

The settlement house concept was carried to America by Jane Addams, who opened her famous Hull House in Chicago in 1889. Her autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull-House, is considered one of the most influential books ever written by an American.

The West Coast wasn't far behind. In 1890, two young San Franciscans, Elizabeth Ashe and Alice Griffith, followed Addams' example by opening what was to become the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center. Located in one of the poorest and most crowded areas of San Francisco, it offered a club for boys, sewing classes for girls, and later a nursery, a health clinic with an operating room, a gymnasium and a library.

As one girl said, who grew up there in the 1920s, it was "where you were when you weren't at home."

Located at 660 Lombard Street between Powell and Mason, the center continues to serve a vital function for the residents of Telegraph Hill and the surrounding area. The staff no longer live on the premises, and the medical program has been reduced to primary care, but the center has never strayed from its original purpose of incorporating low-income families into the fabric of the neighborhood.

Now known at Tel Hi, the center doesn't look very imposing from the outside. A sign on the sidewalk, with lettering in English, Chinese and Italian, guides the visitor down a long wooden ramp past a flower garden to a rustic two-story building.

But inside, the facility is surprisingly spacious. It has a great many rooms of all sizes, which are used for everything from community meetings to bread baking. The senior lounge serves hot lunch to 80 seniors each Monday through Friday for a $1.25 donation. About 130 children, age 2-1/2 through 9, attend day-long or after-school programs. The medical wing has seven examination rooms and a full staff. In the back is a full-sized gymnasium with a basketball court, and right outside is a large playground.


There's a tremendous cultural mix here -- Asian, black, white, and Hispanic," says Ruby Gim, the administrative director. "We celebrate all the cultural things here, such as Chinese New Year and Black History month.... We serve a lot of kids from the North Beach Housing Project. Most families in the project are headed by single parents, or by a grandmother or aunt. A lot of them don't have Christmas, so we put on a party here every year for them, in the gym... We prepare food baskets for them to take home. We're trying to bring everyone together and break the isolation."

Each year, a week before Thanksgiving, Tel Hi throws a Thanksgiving dinner in the gym for 350 people from the neighborhood. The guests are seated at tables and served by teenagers from the youth program.

Such events are made possible by donations from businesses, ranging from Hastings Clothing Company to Tante Marie's Cooking School. Frequently, a restaurant that finds itself with a lot of leftovers will donate them to the center, enabling everyone to sample gourmet items. Recently, the Red and White Fleet gave Tel Hi 150 tickets to Angel Island. Pre-schoolers, youths and seniors went together and shared a picnic lunch.

For years, Diners Out has been one of the strongest supporters of the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center. Earlier this year, Diners Out donated many tickets to a Giants/A's game. Previously it has presented tickets to the Barnum & Bailey Circle, the Grand National Rodeo, the Renaissance Fair, and the Black Forest in Novato. Diners Out provides Tel Hi with fresh fruit, French bread from local bakeries, sports equipment, and other gifts.

"In most neighborhoods, there's a problem between the teenagers and the elderly," points out executive director Denise McCarthy. "Here, they see each every day. And even if it's not a structural interchange, that everyday recognition of one another overflows into the neighborhood. When there are problems, we find that the seniors are very quick to say whether it's our kids. It's that kind of personalized direct interchange between all age groups here that makes this a unique place."


The center has a cooperative nursery program for parents who are able to gave their time to the school, in lieu of staffing. There's a head teacher, and the rest are volunteers. Such programs were very popular in the 1950s and 60s, but there aren't many of them left. For the older kids, after-school tutoring is available.

"Many of our pre-schoolers are pretty dependent on their families when they first arrive," says Mary Anne Caine, administrative assistant with the children's center. "Here, they become very independent. By the time they leave, they can pick up after themselves, take care of each other, socialize. Asian children come in without speaking a word of English, and within a couple of months are screaming in English." Lunch and snacks are prepared on-site.

Most programs are free for low-income families, and don't have a waiting list. "We can fill the needs of families who come to the city for a couple of months," says Caine. "We always seem to have space for children. Families use the hours that they need."


The seniors program, headed for the past 19 years by Hope Halikias, includes tai chi classes, sewing, knitting, crocheting, bingo, and a bus trip every month, usually to Reno. The seniors also tend the community garden, planting flowers in their individual plots.

Director McCarthy has seen many success stories in her 11 years at Tel Hi. Asked for an example, she recalls a training program and painting project in the North Beach housing project, which employed youths who lived there. "We had a problem with two boys who were finally kicked out of the program for a short period of time and their paychecks were held up," she remembers. "But later, these two ended up joining the painters union and became painters, out of all the kids."

Tel Hi's biggest challenge in recent years, says McCarthy, has been "to find the funding to provide services. It's still coming from the same sources, but now there are many more organizations looking for the same funding. We're a neighborhood-based organization, so our core support has always come from the neighborhood. But in the last three to five years, a lot of small family-held businesses have been sold to large conglomerates or corporations. So the funding has been cut back."


Despite its low-income focus, the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center and all its services are open to everyone.

One thing that hasn't changed over the past 102 years is the quest for volunteers. "We need volunteers in the children's center," says McCarthy. "We have a program they go through, for tutoring kids. We have a mentor program with teens and jobs. We always like to find people with interesting careers and/or jobs to give a presentation to our teen group and pre-teens. And one thing the seniors would love is musicians, or people to help plan activities or do art projects."

For more information about the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, drop by anytime during the week or call 415/421-6443.

Diners Out magazine, spring 2000

Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center: Where Generations Come Together

By Max Millard

For most San Franciscans, Telegraph Hill is synonymous with Coit Tower, the picture-postcard landmark which rises 210 feet into the skyline, a city symbol as prominent as the cable cars and the Crookedest Street.

But for those of more practical mind, the name refers to a squat two-story building at 660 Lombard Street, housing a nonprofit social service agency that has been in continuous operation since 1890. All that time, Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center better known as Tel-Hi has been a virtual second home for residents of North Beach, Chinatown, Russian Hill and Fisherman's Wharf.

With its programs embracing every age group from toddlers to seniors, Tel-Hi has adapted to the times, gradually changing from a settlement house for the poorest of the poor, to a modern, full-service agency that welcomes people of all income levels, while still focusing on those of greatest need.

A place where generations mingle, and where residents of the next-door North Beach Public Housing are actively drawn into its fabric, Tel-Hi is open Monday to Friday throughout the year, serving hundreds of people daily. It has a medical clinic, a computer lab, a full-size basketball court, a community garden, a large playground, and public meeting rooms which can be made available to any neighborhood group.

The children's program is the largest single component, said Denise McCarthy, the center's executive director since 1981. "We serve about 200 children between preschool (age 2-1/2) and 15 years old. Of those, 12 to 15 percent are kids who have been with us all the way through. So that's a nice good solid core, and we can track those kids and see the results in the whole developmental growth, both socially and academically."

The preschool is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and parents can choose to leave their children for any part of that period. Low-income families get the service free, while families of moderate or higher income are charged a fee which is considerably below the city average.

Tel-Hi also houses a cooperative nursery program for parents who are able to spend one day a week at the school. Operated independently of the Tel-Hi administration, the Coop hires its own full-time teacher; the only other staff is the parent volunteers. Such schools were widespread in the 1960s, but have become rarities.

The program most in demand, which always has a long waiting list, is the after-school program for children age 6 to 12. "All kids need a safe place to be after school," pointed out McCarthy. "As parents are working these days, kids are left on their own at a fairly early age third graders and even younger. And some are left with the responsibility of caring for younger siblings. Tel-Hi provides a safe, comfortable environment.

"Most of them say that if they weren't here, they would be at home in front of the television, or hanging out somewhere. The kids can be on their own up to four hours. That's when they get in trouble: they just have too much free time."

She added: "There are some programs of Recreation and Park that are drop-in, but without much supervision. For parents who want to know that there is supervision, and the kids are getting a certain level of activities and curriculum, we are one of the few that runs that broad a program for school-age kids. The school district runs after-school programs, but they stop after the second grade."

Some school-age kids come directly to Tel-Hi in the early morning, stay for an hour or so, then catch the bus for their regular school. In the afternoon, they return to Tel-Hi and remain until their parents come home from work.

One rule of the after-school program, stressed McCarthy, is that "they're required to do their homework when they first get here after school, and get as much of it done as they can. Even if they say, 'I don't have homework,' they're required to do some kind of academic work. After that, they have a variety of recreation and social activities that they can participate in."

So popular is the program that in 1999, a group of 14 students, who had graduated from 8th grade and were no longer eligible to participate, approached the administration and said, "We want to be able to go back to Tel-Hi somehow." McCarthy responded, "We'll work with you."

"Once a week on Friday after school, they come," she said. "They set their agenda. They have workshops, or socials, or community work, but basically it's how they have chosen to continue this relationship."

Other kids of high-school age come back in the summer to work as aides, earning a small stipend while learning valuable job skills.

The seniors program, the center's second largest component, is headed by Ruby Gim, a Tel-Hi staffer since 1978. More than 120 seniors attend each day. A nutritious lunch, served by Project Open Hand, is available for a token charge. Most of the seniors live alone on fixed incomes, and it is their only hot meal of the day. One-fifth speak little or no English, and only 2 percent are college graduates.

Among the other senior activities are noontime speakers, referrals to legal services, consumer discounts, and classes in line dancing, tai chi, computers, and English as a Second Language. The medical center, with seven examination rooms and a full medical staff headed by Dr. Benjamin Fong, a general practitioner, is open five days a week; it deals primarily with Medi-Cal patients.

Thanks to generous donors, the center has more than a dozen computers, all with Internet access. They are used most by seniors, and pupils in elementary and middle school. Grandparents, parents and children sometimes learn the computer together.

Quite a few neighborhood groups meet at Tel-Hi on a regular basis, from the Fay Park Group to the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. Another evening activity is tutoring, in which volunteers are matched with schoolchildren. Every year, on the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Tel-Hi throws a free Thanksgiving dinner for the neighborhood, which attracts hundreds of people. Noted McCarthy: "We don't do any advertising because we would be overwhelmed."

Julia Stafford, a former director of the preschool, who has been on the staff since 1972 and still teaches there part-time, observed, "We're now really bursting at the seams, with all the programs. There's no place to go. We had thought at one time we could go up, but now with the earthquake stuff, it makes it impossible to even consider it. We would have to go into another building. It's the licensing that holds you to standards. Licensing is there to protect the children against overcrowding, health problems, understaffing."

The preschool and school-age programs operate year-round, even during school holidays. They include snacks, field trips, camp in the summer, and outings for entertainment. Noted McCarthy: "We are subsidizing the low-income families who cannot pay the cost of providing this kind of program after school."

She expressed pride in the center's accomplishments, but admitted, "We struggle. Only 35 percent of our budget is government money. We raise the rest of the money from private sources, including the foundations and United Way."

Both McCarthy and Ruby Gim credited Don Harris, president of Diners Out, as being one of the center's most faithful supporters.

"We have been dealing with Don for at least 12 years, off and on," said Gim. "He's been basically given us ongoing baseball tickets to Giants and Oakland A's games. Also tickets for children's plays, the rodeo at the Cow Palace, and the Ice Follies. It's always family events. He gives us 40 or 50 tickets at a time."

When the tickets arrive, said Gim, "I give them to the school-age and the coop nursery, because it includes kids and the adults. If the seniors want to take their children, they can. I offer them to everybody. Mostly lower-income people attend, but I don't ask what their income is."

The tickets are appreciated, she said, "because most people don't have the time or the funds to purchase them, or it's not their priority. This way, when the kids hear about them, it's, 'Mummy, or Daddy, the center has tickets. Can we go?' Not only does it give an opportunity for art activities and recreation, but it gives the family an opportunity to have an outing. It has a purpose."

Added McCarthy, "There's not many people like Don. There are some. He's been there through thick and thin, and has been really really supportive in a lot of ways. I think there are a lot of people who don't even think that way. They don't think they can be helpful in the way that he has been.

"There's always ways that you can contribute to the community," she continued. "It doesn't have to be in the form of money. It can be services or contributions of goods, and there aren't a lot of people who think about it. Don is one who does, and has for many years."

For more information about the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, call 415-421-6443.

Max Millard is a free-lance journalist in San Francisco. His son Carl attended Tel-Hi's preschool from 1998-2000.