Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Unitarian Church of Harrisburg finds new life, new purpose as Shalom House community center

The former Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, which is being repurposed by Shalom House.

Recently, there’s been much discussion over what to do with the numerous Methodist churches that are for sale in the Harrisburg area.

Some say they should be used for their intended purpose—as churches. Others hope to repurpose the buildings for other uses. But what would that look like?

Shalom House in Allison Hill is currently embarking on a project to create a community center from the former Unitarian Church of Harrisburg on Market Street to further its goal of serving single women, mothers and their children.

The nonprofit currently provides a 21-bed emergency shelter, as well as programs to meet the needs of those who are “chronically homeless.” Now, the organization would like to expand its mission by tackling the root causes of homelessness.

“Instead of just trying to address homelessness, let’s try to create a healthy community as a whole,” said Denise Britton, executive director of Shalom House.

On May 1, Shalom House purchased the church, which is located just around the corner from its facility on S. 15th Street.

Capital Area Head Start (CAHS), part of Keystone Human Services, will serve as Shalom’s main partner through this process, bringing its experience with children and families in the Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry County area. The group signed a seven-year lease with Shalom, and construction began in early May.

“Now, being so close, Shalom can provide services to the adults—and we can provide educational programming to the children,” said Jo Pepper, consulting director for CAHS. “It’s a more efficient use of community resources.”

The new space also satisfies the need that CAHS was facing due to the loss of classroom space for more than 300 kids last year.

Construction workers stand in the former church sanctuary, which is being converted to community space.

The main issues Britton saw that needed to be addressed were the barriers that women with small children have to early childhood education, transportation and childcare.

The building will house both Shalom and CAHS offices and the programs they will work together to operate. In addition to the offices, the multi-phase project will include office space for mothers and single women in the community to use, as well as early learning classrooms for their children. While CAHS professionals meet the needs of the kids, mothers can receive workforce development training in various fields.

In addition, HACC will partner with Shalom to offer an onsite version of its job readiness curriculum. Other colleges and universities, such as Elizabethtown College, Misericordia University and Alvernia University, will bring in occupational therapy interns to provide mental health services.

Centurion Construction Group LLC is the general contractor for the project. First-floor offices and classrooms should be completed in September.

Britton explained that Shalom House currently serves more than 200 mothers and single women every year. With the new facility and partnership with CAHS, they expect to offer services to around 500 families yearly.

The total cost of the purchase and renovation of the building is around $2.2 million, and Britton said that they’re about halfway to meeting their fundraising goal.

But the project doesn’t stop at the building’s walls.

Shalom House has purchased four lots behind the church building for the construction of a playground for the CAHS children. They also would like to purchase more lots in the coming years to add transitional (six-month) living for women and children coming out of emergency shelters, as well as affordable apartments for those who need a permanent place to stay.

With the new housing facilities, Britton would like to cater to women coming out of prison who not only need housing, but support services.

“We know that, as folks are transitioning out of emergency housing, there’s not an appropriate amount of housing for them,” Britton explained.

According to Britton, the total for the entire project, including the community center, playground and housing, is projected at $5 million.

Along with the construction, Shalom is preparing its staff through team-building. The organization uses a mentorship model that provides one-on-one life coaching for those who are part of their program. Some of the rooms in the new building will be used for training these coaches.

“We weren’t interested in a big project that launches and then collapses from the inside,” said Chris Green, a life coach.

Elizabethtown College has been helping Shalom begin working as a social enterprise instead of a nonprofit. According to the College’s Social Enterprise Institute, this is “an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders.”

A large-scale project with many different parts, Britton summed up the goal.

“We want people to be able to dream again.”

Shalom House is located at 9 S. 15th St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit

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