The Enduring Importance of Wilmington's West End Neighborhood House
By staying nimble, the organization is able to help thousands each year.
Geronimo Vannicola (right) and Paul Calistro Jr. chat at Vannicola’s WavLab Studios in Wilmington. The 31-year-old music composer and producer began using West End’s services at age 6.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
A history of more than 130 years doesn’t weigh down Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House.
Rather than slogging through the same-as-usual approach decade after decade, a common pitfall of long-established agencies hustling on razor-thin margins and meager budgets, quite the opposite happens at West End. The organization in the city’s Little Italy section on North Lincoln Street operates nimbly, despite its advanced age.
Clint Walker, board president at West End, calls “resilience and flexibility” its strongest attributes. The agency continuously alters its programs and business model to meet the needs of a changing society while maintaining its core function of self-sufficiency.
Expansion of reach also has resulted from this adaptability, as West End Neighborhood House has grown beyond what its name might imply. Though about three-quarters of its clients still hail from Wilmington, it now assists low-income families from as far as Sussex County.
“We’re about how do you move people up,” says Paul Calistro Jr., the executive director of over 25 years for West End. “How do you move them forward? It’s about motion, not maintenance.”
This belief and its mission have allowed the agency to help tens of thousands of people since its founding in 1883.
A flexible past
West End’s long history shows how it bends with the times. In the beginning, it helped immigrants with housing, employment and literacy services. During the Great Depression, the agency founded a prenatal healthcare clinic and the first free kindergarten in the state, as well as various sports programs and clubs for neighborhood children. The focus shifted during World War II and the years after to training women in first aid and creating more nursery school programs. From the ’60s to the ’80s, West End addressed the growing issue of poverty and started full-day childcare, tutoring and housing programs.
Around the turn of the 21st century and beyond, West End further developed initiatives centered on education, employment and childcare. It created a series of programs that improved the health of area low-income mothers and, subsequently, decreased infant mortality; helped former foster care youth adjust to adult independence through life and job skills; and guided people to financial security through wealth education and management.
“WENH is absolutely integral to the West Side,” Walker says. “It has a variety of programs that provide real and practical help to at-risk residents of the community, ranging from programs to teaching GED to after-school activities that help students be successful—including a nationally ranked track team—to homeownership by providing credit counseling and loans and securing affordable housing.”
Calistro cites a common proverb when talking about West End’s overall philosophy: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
West End does have a food closet, which provides people with immediate sustenance. “But we also must stop and say to them, ‘We need to eliminate the problem of why you don’t have food. What’s going on in the bigger picture?’” says Calistro, noting that West End strives for efficiency with aligning services. “If you can go to one place and get multiple things taken care of, you will be probably closer to being self-sufficient versus having to go to 19 places to figure it out.”
Paul Calistro Jr., who has served as executive director of West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington for more
The next step
As new programs have launched, others have disappeared. West End offered the first free kindergarten in Delaware but has pulled back. The move, Calistro says, surprised some.
“People were like, ‘Whoa, that’s one of your core services. Why are you getting out of it?’” he says. “The reason: Now, you have Head Start, day cares and schools. We no longer needed to replicate what everyone else was doing, so we moved on and took our limited resources to focus on where there are gaps.”
West End soon will begin its latest initiative to address a need: an entrepreneurship program to create a sustainable way to stabilize and revitalize at-risk communities. The Launcher Business Resource Center will have locations in Wilmington and Claymont.
“What good is it if you’re relatively healthy from an economic, education and housing standpoint, but the community you live in is a disaster?” says Calistro.
The dynamics of such areas will change for the better by helping entrepreneurs create profitable businesses, hire at-risk individuals and teach them employability skills, and start entrepreneurship incubators, Walker says. Once the companies get up and running and become profitable, they won’t need to rely on charitable largesse or government funding to generate a positive impact and a culture of entrepreneurship.
West End will support this project in two key areas, Calistro says. First, it will offer classes at night and on the weekends to teach the fundamentals of running a thriving company. Second, it will help prospective business owners find commercial properties and access loans.
“We want to help the guy who has been an electrician for years start his own business,” Calistro says. “He knows how to wire houses, but he doesn’t know how to meet payroll or how to market himself.”
One of these mentors will be Bear resident Geronimo Vannicola. Born and raised in the foster care system, he began using West End’s services at age 6.
West End’s youth summer camps and after-school programs gave him stability in a rocky time, he says. Without its support, he knows his life would have taken a much different path.
Vannicola, 31, now works as a successful music composer, producer and owner of WavLab Studios, a recording studio and entertainment company in Wilmington. He recently scored the music to the reality show “Icon of the Islands,” which led to an invite to last year’s Grammy Awards.
Eternally grateful for the opportunities West End afforded him, Vannicola wants to give back to the organization and provide the necessary steps to help others to be successful.
“One thing I’ve learned from my journey is that it’s easy to pick from the tree, but not everyone wants to sit around and water the seeds,” he says. “That’s paramount. If we want to eat from the tree, we have to realize there’s a root.”
In good company
Calistro stresses the keys to West End’s success are the countless volunteers who teach, coach and train, and the dedicated staff he works side-by-side with.
“West End has people who could literally triple their salary if they went somewhere else,” he says, rattling off college professors and coworkers with Ivy League degrees. “If you ask me what’s my best quality, I’d say that I attract great people. That’s the story.”
Walker, who has been involved with West End for 15 years, doesn’t let Calistro get off that easily.
“Paul is someone I admire and look up to,” says Walker, chief administrative officer and managing director of Barclays Bank Delaware. “He cares deeply about those he’s there to help and his West End colleagues. He’s practical and ruthless about ensuring its programs provide a real service and substantial, practical help to at-risk people.”
Vannicola calls Calistro a father figure, especially after his brush with the law before college.
“West End was the only place that was there for me,” Vannicola says. “He gave me real advice. He told me, ‘Get your s--- together. Life ain’t easy.’”
Calistro says he often gets personally invested in the thousands of people who walk through West End’s doors every year, some whose parents and grandparents came in generations before.
“When they fail, for a short period of time, you can fall into the trap of feeling like you’ve failed,” he admits. “But I’ve literally had people come up to me on the street who said, ‘Twenty years ago you changed my life because of this, this and this.’ That’s success. I just hug them and say thank you. It’s like a Christmas present, even if it’s in June.”
THREE TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Paul Calistro Jr. has spent much of his professional life navigating the uncertainty of the nonprofit world. “You’re running your business on 0.1 percent margin—one mistake can have a huge effect,” says Calistro, who worked for over a decade in the administration at the Salvation Army before joining West End Neighborhood House as executive director in 1991. Along the way, he has learned a few things about how to run a successful organization. Calistro shared some advice:
- “The best ideas come from the people in the community. You just have to listen to them.”
- “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to partner with other people and organizations.”
- “You can accomplish almost anything as long as you don’t care who gets the credit."