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Cultivating change

Rural ministry in Michigan earns Midwest regional victory

CHANGING LIVES: Don Hoitenga (kneeling) and workers in the field at Friends Ministry. Photo by Daniel James Devine

Cultivating change
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This is the ninth year of WORLD’s Hope Award for Effective Compassion. Through the nominating work of our readers we’ve had the privilege of looking into hundreds of poverty-fighting ministries, and through the kindness of donors we’ve been able to award $45,000 each year to programs that impress our reporters and our readers who vote online each October to decide the national winner.

This year, after researching numerous ministries via internet and telephone interviews, we sent Midwest bureau reporter Daniel James Devine to eyeball Friends Ministry in Michigan and Community Warehouse in Wisconsin. Both seemed equally effective in stimulating change among those who are poor. Both rely largely on informal relationships of Christians and non-Christians within controlled work environments.

We chose Friends as the Midwest Region winner because over the past nine years we haven’t seen as many rural programs as urban ones, and because Friends’ garden work program is intriguing. Friends has many avenues of outreach into the community, since anyone in crisis can arrive looking for help, and Friends gives church volunteers great opportunity to interact with those who are bartering their time to get bills paid.

Please read on. —Marvin Olasky

Fruits of Labor

LAKE CITY, Mich.—On a cool morning in early June, strawberry, asparagus, and pea sprouts stood in rows in a community garden in Michigan. Dozens of Geronimo tomato plants and bell peppers grew inside a hoop house. Sprouts of parsley, sage, and basil spread their leaves in a greenhouse heated to 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Near the garden’s front gate, Teresa Paxton, 54, a worker with freckles, a ponytail, and a friendly smile, sprinkled water on salad greens growing in waist-high plastic bins. She ran her fingers through robust romaine and green leaf lettuce, and pointed out arugula, radishes, and beets. Caring for these salad bins is her therapy, she said: Two years ago she was “miserable” after her marriage crumbled, but “this place changed my life. When I walked in that gate, this peace came over me.”

Here at Friends Ministry, a 61-acre nonprofit in northern Michigan, berries and 18 varieties of vegetables grow in a community garden created to help the poor. The official unemployment rate here is 11 percent, and while some work on dairy farms and at Christmas tree plantations, others draw welfare checks and use food stamps. Friends Ministry aims to revive a work ethic by hiring residents to labor in the garden in exchange for financial assistance, and along the way teach about both God and budgeting.

At 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday, 11 workers arrived and gathered in a circle as a garden manager prayed for safety for the day and salvation for the lost. Then they split up for assigned tasks: some to plant beets, one to run a rototiller, and two to rake up dead stalks cut from Nova red raspberry bushes, making way for new growth that should bring 3,000 pints of fruit this year (plus whatever the robins snatch).

Some of these workers were fulfilling hours required by “barter” contracts they’ve signed with Friends Ministry: Once they work in the garden 37.5 hours, the organization will directly pay a bill of up to $300, whether for house rent, utilities, or a car repair. It works out to $8 an hour, though they are not technically employees: If they break a contract by failing to fulfill their scheduled hours, their bill goes unpaid.

The gardeners include volunteers who come here regularly to befriend the barter laborers and offer a word of encouragement or a listening ear. One, Don Hoitenga, carried gospel tracts in his shirt pocket and said he sometimes hands out Bibles to barter workers. “God bless you. Good to meet you again. Keep the faith,” he told one after helping her transplant asparagus into a shallow trench.

Paxton, for example, gained help with a gas and electric bill but also spiritual help: As she worked in the garden, a supervisor (and pastor) listened to her, prayed with her, and invited her to Bible studies. Today, she is a member and weekly attender of his church. Before, she merely believed in God, but she’s now trying to “live my life the way God wants me to.” She collects Social Security disability income for a spinal abnormality that causes back pain when she sits still for too long, but watering, harvesting, and packaging salad greens allow her to keep moving.

Paxton also hopes working in the garden will get her in good enough shape to get an outside job. Earlier this year she bartered labor to pay for repairs to her red pickup truck, and since then she has come every day as a volunteer or to donate her hours. (Friends Ministry allows friends and family members to help one another fulfill contract hours, but limits contracts to two per household, per year.)

Brian Cohee, a 43-year-old single dad who said he’s been off drugs for three years, collects Social Security income for a head injury: In 2010 he huffed cleaning spray, passed out, hit his head on concrete, and underwent two brain surgeries. He said he doesn’t yet attend church but prays more than he used to. He believes his head injury would make him a liability to a regular employer, but thinks he might be able to run his own landscaping business: At Friends Ministry he fired up a weed whacker and cut grass along the garden fence, working to pay off an electric furnace repair bill: “I’ve paid off court fees, I’ve paid off license fees, lawyer fees.” He sometimes brings his kids along to teach them the value of hard work: “My 5-year-old was even out here picking up rocks on a Saturday.”

Friends Ministry started in 1994 as a nondenominational outreach growing out of a deacons’ ministry run by the Christian Reformed Church that offered prayer, transportation, or help with heating bills. It grew to include a banquet hall rental business (which failed) and a thrift shop (which thrived and brings in a third or more of Friends Ministry’s annual revenue). It gives away or resells donated used cars and organizes summer volunteer church teams to fix roofs or clean up yards in the community.

In 2010 Friends Ministry added the garden in hopes of giving people with low income a dignified place to work in exchange for help. Today it sells the fruits and vegetables at a road stand and farmers market. Some residents also pay in advance for a “share” of the season’s produce. The garden hasn’t suffered widespread crop losses yet, although cowbirds ate all the saskatoon berries overnight last year—this year, nets will cover the bushes.

When new clients arrive looking for help with a bill, executive director Mark Mortenson, 60, usually requires them to write out a budget. He often prays with them and invites them to surrender to God what they can’t control: car problems, gas prices, physical pains. He provides spiritual counsel for overcoming alcohol or drug addictions, and refers them to outside counselors for serious family problems or mental illness.

Friends Ministry does not hand out cash to clients but will give a free piece of furniture from the thrift shop, and pay directly up to $50 for a legitimate need such as a heating payment, a GED testing fee, or work boots. For larger bills, clients must work off a garden contract. If their expenses exceed the contract limit, Friends Ministry connects them to other assistance agencies, or helps them find subsidized housing if they are living beyond their means. Many clients get help with bills then disappear the rest of the year, but some, like Paxton, return to donate their time or money.

Clients often arrive blaming others for their problems, and are sometimes lazy, so Mortenson challenges them to take responsibility. Once, when a worker was “lollygagging” instead of doing his job peeling the bark from cedar posts, Mortenson walked over, threatened to cancel his work contract, and said, “I want one log peeled every 15 minutes. … If you can’t do that, then go home.” The worker peeled the log in 15 minutes and, excited by his success, began teaching others how to do the same.

Mortenson’s conclusion: “People respond when you love them enough to give ’em a little push.”

Money Box: Friends Ministry

• 2012 revenue: $294,924

• 2012 expenses: $267,457

• Net assets at the end of 2012: $365,525

• Executive director Mark Mortenson’s salary and benefits: $48,943

• Staff: 1 full-time; 11 part-time

• 2014 budget: $286,000

• Website: FriendsMinistry.net

Freedom to work

MILWAUKEE—Jacob Maclin wanted to be a good dad to his two young children, but he had no car, no job, and a gang background. He’d recently served nearly five years in prison for participating in a drug deal. His job hunting efforts led to more than 70 interviews and many promises of, “We’ll keep you in mind,” but no one ever called back.

Maclin kept count of the interviews in a black book. After 100, he planned to give up—but his 73rd interview was at Community Warehouse, a Christian nonprofit based in Milwaukee’s south side that provides discounted construction materials such as windows, doors, siding, and light fixtures to dilapidated neighborhoods. After some internal debate, the organization hired the former convict in early 2008.

Maclin’s only skills were cooking and cleaning, so he started dusting off the warehouse products. “The more stuff I wiped off, the more things started to sell. So I just went on a wiping spree for two weeks.” He soon learned to drive a forklift, work the cash register, and track inventory.

By 2011, with sales doubled and revenue soaring, Maclin became the discount warehouse’s manager. Now he’s 33 and his responsibilities include directing eight or so workers in jobs he once held—unloading semitrailers full of donated products, or organizing tubs and ceramic tile on display shelves. He’s been surprised by his ability to retain numbers and manage a business: “No matter what shape, form, or color you are, God has blessings for any individual that leans more towards Him.”

That was the belief of several businessmen who created Community Warehouse in 2002 as an effort to spruce up the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Residents within one of Milwaukee’s poor neighborhoods pay an annual membership fee ($25 for individuals, $100 for nonprofits, $150 for businesses) and can then shop at the warehouse, with product prices discounted roughly 80 percent below retail. One shopper, Lonita Thomas, 58, said she had bought bathroom fixtures, a sink, and faucets: She is helping her brother remodel the white, two-story home they share, and had ridden a commuter bus for an hour to get to the warehouse.

As Community Warehouse facilitates fix-ups it also provides transitional jobs to a stream of workers with checkered backgrounds, often involving weapons or drug convictions. (In Milwaukee County, which includes the city, over half of African-American men in their 30s have spent time in state prisons.) As part of the effort to help some of those least likely to be employed, Community Warehouse has now opened a second large warehouse on the city’s north side. There, workers are rebuilding pallets and selling books online in business endeavors Community Warehouse has created for them, an initiative it calls “Milwaukee Working,” which generates around $30,000 a month.

In a corner of that second warehouse, shelves hold rows of donated books, board games, DVDs, and CDs. Sitting at a computer workstation with a mouse, keyboard, and hand-held scanner, David Buford, 28, flips through a textbook, looking for markings or dog-eared corners. He notes the book’s condition before listing it for sale online.

Before coming to Milwaukee Working, Buford had helped his uncle do home improvement jobs, but the work typically lasted a few months then bottomed out: “I didn’t have a lick of money.” He was tired of being broke for Christmas and his two kids’ birthdays, and thought robbing $2,500 from a drug dealer might change things. Instead, it landed him in jail for four months.

Afterward, Milwaukee Working let him work in the online business: He started at the minimum wage rate of $7.25 an hour, paid by the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin, a federally funded social services agency. Now Buford earns $10 an hour, with a quarter of his paycheck temporarily subsidized by YWCA, and the rest paid by Community Warehouse. He’s saving up to buy bunk beds for his kids, who spend weekends with him. Buford says he’s gone “from having the courage to go rob somebody to having the courage to get up every morning and provide for my family honestly.”

At another workstation, the e-commerce manager, 28-year-old Leroy Maclin (Jacob’s younger brother), helps a new worker properly tape up sold textbooks in bubble wrap, envelopes, and boxes. “This is my pride and joy,” Leroy Maclin says of the online business. On a world map on the wall, pushpins mark where the business has shipped products—to every continent except Antarctica. It even shipped some exercise equipment to a Navy destroyer in the Mediterranean, all the while maintaining Milwaukee Working’s 98 percent positive feedback seller status on Amazon.com.

Elsewhere in the building, workers cut apart used pallets, shearing nails with reciprocating saws, discarding cracked planks, and saving good ones. In a huge, dank basement, the sound of pop! pop! pop! bursts from pneumatic nail guns and ricochets off a high ceiling as workers build new pallets. Leroy Maclin, smiling, jumps up and down on one of the freshly nailed ones: “I’m practically 300 pounds. I got to test it out.”

One pallet worker, Eric Knox, 43, served nearly eight years in prison on federal drug charges. He has three daughters, one of whom recently graduated from college, and says “a lot of family members are proud of what I’m doing now.” He plans to marry his fiancée next year.

Community Warehouse isn’t a church. Transitional workers need not profess faith, and some live with fiancées, but they must abide by rules at work: hand in cell phones, no smoking except during breaks, be honest and respectful. Staff and volunteers serve as informal mentors, and Milwaukee Working hosts a Monday morning Bible study that almost all the workers attend voluntarily. The Bible study “helps guys like me understand why Jesus sacrificed Himself,” says Leroy Maclin. “A lot of guys like me believe in Him, know of Him, but really don’t know of His Word.”

Some workers prove themselves unreliable. “Gettin’ ’em here is the biggest challenge,” Jacob Maclin says. “Right now I got four guys that didn’t show up today!” Workers are allowed one sick day per month, and when some miss more, Maclin contacts them to find out what caused the absence, and may offer to help them overcome personal struggles: He empathizes with men who feel drawn back into old lifestyles, where drug deals once offered thousands of dollars of income per day. Firings occur only as a last resort. “That’s the toughest part of my job: letting someone go.”

For the workers who stay, Jacob Maclin, now married and a father to four, is a role model. It’s his responsibility, he says, to make sure “no matter if they are here for six months, one year, four years, five, that they know that they have somebody who really cares.”

Money Box: Community Warehouse

• 2013 revenue: $1,422,140

• 2013 expenses: $914,293

• Net assets at the end of fiscal year 2013: $1,589,760

• Salary of immediate past executive director George Bogdanovich: $24,000

• Staff: 24 employees on payroll; 22 transitional job workers

• Fiscal 2015 budget: $1.6 million

• Website: TheCommunityWarehouse.org; MilwaukeeWorking.org

Read profiles of the other finalists and runners-up in the 2014 Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition.

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is editor of WORLD Magazine. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former science and technology reporter. Daniel resides in Indiana.



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