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Center discerns if its bricks and mortar fit its programs

With bricks and mortar shaping programs and capacity at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Family Outreach Center, the new Spokane director, Joe O’Neil, is helping the center review its neighborhood, needs, programs and building.

Joe O'Neil
Joe O'Neil plays with some of the children in child care.

Soon after he began last October, he saw that there was not adequate shade for children to play or do other activities outside. 

With the support of First Presbyterian Church, Kiwanis and other donors, the center built a 30-by-24-foot pole building with a roof that provides shade and shelter from rain so classes can be outdoors in the fresh air, especially for the summer program.

That structure is an example of how a simple change can make a difference in the shape of programs.

Inside, Joe sees another need.

The Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) has 18 slots in the morning and 18 in the afternoon, providing three-and-a-half hours of structured curriculum for preschoolers.

The child-care area is smaller, with a capacity for 10 to 12, so parents of six to eight children have to pick up their children or deliver them midday.

“We want to enable parents to work all day so they gain the job skills and behaviors they need to move up economically.  It’s hard when they have to leave at noon, pick up their children and take them to another child care program,” Joe said.  “We would like the shape of the building to allow us to keep them in our quality care through the day.”

Since it moved into the former fire station—in its present location at 845 S. Sherman—in the 1980s, the center has leased the building for a dollar a year from the City of Spokane.  It also has use of the adjacent house for its Family Services and Administrative offices.

Programs are structured around the building.

Joe is leading the center’s staff and board in an assessment of what it is currently doing, whom it serves and how well, what other children’s programs are in the neighborhood, who benefits from their services, who else they might serve and what facilities they would need to offer the target population a quality program.

He said the center will explore many options, from partnerships that would involve sharing facilities to exploring rebuilding the facility to fit needs.

Joe joined the Air Force out of high school in Binghamton, NY, and served 20 years in para-rescue special forces working to save lives, so his life has been committed to helping others.

He served in the Philippines, Cheyenne, Wyo.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Ogden, Utah; Iceland; Cocoa Beach, Fla.; England, Okinawa and Tacoma. 

Over the years, he helped in humanitarian work ranging from search-and-rescue looking for lost Boy Scouts, hunters, glacier explorers, fishermen and women at sea and astronauts.  He also brought aid to Kurdish refugees.

He retired from the Air Force in 1999 after earning a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University in workforce education, and in 2002, he completed a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Chapman University.

Joe’s first civilian job was as director of health and emergency services with the American Red Cross and then as director of state and federal campaigns with United Way in Tacoma.  He led Red Cross staff and volunteers in responding to an earthquake, flooding and house fires, and taught first aid and CPR classes.  For five years with United Way, he raised more than $6 million for charities from state and federal employees.

Last summer, he and his wife came to Spokane and she introduced him to her home town.  They decided to move here, so he applied for the opening at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Family Outreach Center.

He is impressed with the capability of the staff there to provide more than day care.  The center has master’s level department directors and bachelor’s level program managers who help children identify and apply appropriate emotional, social and educational skills, he said.

“We look for teachable moments, to help children resolve conflicts, gain the ability to ask for help and come to identify their own strengths and weaknesses,” he said, telling of one child who used to walk up to him and punch him as a greeting.

Joe simply told the child:  “We don’t punch, but we do high fives.”  Now that’s how the child greets him.

“Little things that seem insignificant can be big,” he said.

About a third of the 60 children who come to the center each day need special attention.

“For me, this work is about believing in something greater than self.  As I think of my life and Jesus’ life, I realize he taught by demonstration.  He acted to others with sincerity and out of a desire to see them become better than they thought they could be,” said Joe.

In the military, he also found a call to service above self, to work as a team and put the team above oneself.

“It’s not about doing for people to be in the limelight, but to do little things,” he said.  “People watch attitudes and behavior.  Faith needs to be demonstrated.  It’s not always easy.”

He knows that people argued and fought in biblical times as they do today.

“If faith means anything, it means we need hourly to do things to affect the lives of other people positively,” said Joe, a member of Our Lady of Fatima parish.

During the coming summer, children and youth will come for fun activities that keep them learning, safe and happy, Joe said.

The summer programs                                                                                      include the Summer Youth Academy for children from three to 12 and the Teen Leadership Academy for youth from 13 to 18.  The programs will involve 60 people all day, with children eating outdoors and rotating inside and outside for different activities

The teens help teachers work with the children.

Teens will also build fishing rods and have a day camp to use them.

In addition, the center is coordinating with Washington State University in Pullman for the teens to spend three days, staying in dorms on campus, eating in the cafeteria and attending classes.  The goal is to start them thinking that they can go to college.

For information, call 455-8722 ext. 211 or email