In his nearly 20 years at the helm of Neighborhood House, Rick Nitti has shepherded the Southwest Portland nonprofit through unprecedented growth and watched as the city around it has changed dramatically.
Now, he'll be spectating from afar.
Nitti will be retiring at the end of July from his role as executive director, a position he's held since 1999.
"I'm from this community. I've lived in this community a long time. I know a lot of people and would like to stay involved in community relations and support the new executive director," Nitti told the Connection. "What I don't want to do is be involved in day-to-day management."
Neighborhood House, which operates out of a modest converted home and storefront on Southwest Capitol Highway in Multnomah Village, has grown by leaps and bounds since the late 1990s, when it had an operating budget of a little more than $2 million and a staff of 63. Now, Nitti oversees more than 160 staff members and a budget of $6.5 million.
"In his time at Neighborhood House, it has evolved from a small Southwest organization to a critical piece of the Portland safety net," says Mari Yerger, the development director at Neighborhood House, who has worked closely with Nitti the past 14 years. "Rick is just incredibly focused on our mission, he really cares deeply about the work that we do and it's always just really inspiring to work with him."
Nitti has spent most of his career working in what he refers to as "settlement houses." The settlement movement began in the 1880s in the U.S. as a social cause in which settlement houses provided child care, health care and other social services.
Nitti did stints at Christopher House and Hull House in Chicago. But after about 17 years working in the Midwest, he and his wife, who's originally from Southwest Portland, moved to Hillsdale. He worked for a few other social services organizations and even opened the UPS store in Hillsdale Center until his "dream" position at Neighborhood House opened up and he jumped at it.
Nitti says he derives professional inspiration from the life of his grandfather, who emigrated from southern Italy to the Chicago area when he was just 15 years old.
"Neighborhood House has always, from the beginning of our history, been focused on helping immigrants and refugees acclimate, adjust and succeed in living in this country," he says. "So in many ways I feel like my work is a calling, just like a minister or a priest or a rabbi has a call to do the work. I've always felt I didn't have freedom of choice."
Expansion under Nitti's leadership at Neighborhood House included a recent merger with North Portland's Peninsula Children's Learning Center. Of all the growth, Nitti says he's proudest of the strides in early childhood education and familial support programs.
"Our movement into childcare is an important move for us, and I think it will help shape the direction of the organization going forward," he says. "If you look at Markham Elementary School, where most of the Muslim population lives in Southwest Portland, particularly the Somali population — well, Markham is recognized as the most successful school at working with those families. A big part of that is Neighborhood House providing Head Start to those kids, and our parenting program is there supporting parents and helping immigrant parents feel safe and feel engaged in the school community. And that bore fruit for the school population."
For all the growth, however, Neighborhood House has had its fair share of setbacks, mainly relating to the changing demographics in the city and Multnomah County's push to allocate funding to organizations offering more specific services.
"Here on the west side, we have significant poverty, but not the level of poverty we have in other parts of the city and the county, so we're not a priority area," Nitti says. "I think for a long time we were able to be on that radar screen — that Southwest Portland has pockets of poverty and has communities of immigrants and refugees, and that we tend to be the only game in town and people who need us."
Recently, Neighborhood House lost its Schools United Neighbors (SUN) community-school contract with Multnomah County for programs held at Markham Elementary and at Robert Gray and Jackson middle schools. Nitti says the County's decision to end the contract had to do with its policy shift from funding general service organizations to funding culturally specific organizations.
It's a shift that has reduced funding for another major service provider in the area, Meals on Wheels People.
The loss of funding, Nitti says, drove Neighborhood House to merge with Peninsula Children's Learning Center.
"Losing our SUN contract was significant, and the merger helped us maintain and actually grow our size, even though we lost a significant piece of our contract," he says.
Nitti is optimistic about the ability of the organization to remain a relevant resource for people in need in Southwest Portland and beyond, particularly as a resettlement resource.
"I think there's always going to be a need for us," Nitti says. "We need to continue to evolve and change. One of the things about organizations like ours is we are part of the community, and as the community changes, we need to change with it."
Yerger agrees, crediting Neighborhood House's agility and its partnerships with organizations in other regions for its continued success.
"One of (Rick's) important rules of thumb is if you're going to be a partner, you've got to deliver on your part of deal, you have to be a trusted partner," she says. "That has been gospel here at Neighborhood House under Rick's watch."
When looking back on his time at Neighborhood House, Nitti says he'll miss the people he works with and his local clients. Slowing down in retirement doesn't necessarily appeal to Nitti, though, and so he's hoping to refocus his energy — first with a career shift.
"You know, I've got big ambitions. I want to be an usher at the Moda Center and at Providence Park so the Blazers can pay me to watch basketball and the Timbers can pay me to watch soccer instead of me paying them," he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Other than ushering, he plans to travel, spend more time with his already retired wife and stay involved in some capacity at Neighborhood House. He's also continuing his stint on the boards of the Hillsdale Farmers Market and the Southwest Community Health Center.
"For me, it's always been about community, and staying active in the community is part of my plan. I think I still have a lot to give and I have impact to make and I'll keep doing it," Nitti says. "I've always thought retirement won't be much different from work, except I won't get paid for it."
LEGACY LIVES ON
Neighborhood House Development Director Mari Yerger said she has coordinated the creation of a Rick Nitti Legacy Fund to go toward further growth of the organization.