Driving Miss Tracy
South Region winner changes lives one ride at a time
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In our nine years of offering the Hope Award we’ve particularly looked for replicable projects: Simple but effective programs that folks without rocket science backgrounds or wheelbarrows of cash can create in their own neighborhoods.
Last year, our South Region winner was the Beltline Bike Shop in Atlanta, where kids learn to fix bikes, connect hard work with rewards, and interact with adults who are good role models. This year our South winner is Maury United Ministries (MUMs) of Maury County, Tenn., an hour’s drive south of Nashville, which focuses on one simple but crucial endeavor: giving rides to people without transportation, and in the process building relationships.
Executive director Randy Nichols, a now-retired mechanical designer, has run MUMs for 17 years: part time for seven, full time for the last 10. He now coordinates 5,000 trips per year, connecting 25 volunteers with car-less neighbors who need rides to work, job training, a doctor’s office, GED classes, or day care. The goal, Nichols says, is to “show the love of Christ while providing for transportation needs—and we cannot help but share the gospel message with our passengers as the need arises.”
Nichols showed me around Maury County, three-fifths urban and two-fifths rural, with a population of 80,000 humans, along with 23 cattle for every 100 acres of farmland. The county leads Tennessee in beef production and has had its share of racial animosity: In 1946 Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black Supreme Court justice, defended an African-American naval veteran involved in a fight that led to a Maury County race riot.
The MUMs idea grew out of Nichols’ Bible-reading and self-appraisal: “I really believe where it says God gives some to be apostles and prophets, and equips others for works of service. … I’m not a great speaker and I’m not charismatic, so I looked for something I could do.” He recalls, “I started praying and the Lord showed me if you want to just exist as a poor person, you can get housing through government assistance, food stamps, so you can exist. But if you want to do better, if you start looking for work, you’ll run into a transportation issue.”
Nichols then tackled the problem of recruiting volunteer drivers: “I asked for a day a month, a half day, and I would coordinate and fill in. … At first we just gave six or seven rides a week. Next thing you know people start hearing about it.” The ministry grew: “We let the churches know, the social service organizations know. Didn’t put up a big old billboard because people would think we’re a taxi service. … We had drivers from all denominations, different churches.” Nichols looked for drivers with the “discernment to avoid facilitating the behavior that caused trouble in the first place—victim mentality, entitlement mentality. We wanted to position ourselves to mentor those genuinely seeking to know and serve God.”
Given Maury County’s racial history, it’s not inconsequential that on the afternoon I visited the first pickup by one of Nichols’ most faithful drivers, Marilyn Fullmer, a white retired nurse, was of Tracy, an African-American woman. Eight years ago Fullmer heard Nichols speak about MUMs at her church, Zion Presbyterian, and thought, “That’s something I could probably do.” She’s seen progress in some of the women she’s transported: “I remember taking Tracy job hunting for week after week after week. … Then, instead of taking her job hunting, we’re taking her for a job.”
As she drove her blue Taurus, Fullmer reflected on the riders she has driven: “The most satisfying experience was a young couple that Randy counseled a lot. She was very bright. He was a whiz at the computer. They had some real messes to clean up. They began going to church, became believers, and got married.” Others have not been diligent: “I might knock on a door and not get an answer. If that happens more than a couple of times, Randy will say we just can’t give the ride anymore.”
Fullmer says she has “friends who think I’m crazy for doing this, [but] I haven’t found any real reason to be afraid.” She doesn’t expect quick changes, so she’s seldom disappointed: “I tell myself and my husband tells me often: You can’t do it for them. … You can help. You can provide opportunity—but the Spirit of God has to do the work and they have to listen.” She’s learned a lot over the years: “Sometimes we get attached and decide to help with more than the ride. We have to be careful and go in with eyes open. It’s a fine line: You’re trying to help them because God doesn’t shut the door on us when we come back again.”
Nichols gave me details on demographics and procedures: Most rides are of single mothers or widows. More female than male rides. No opposite-sex driver/rider combos. Then he showed me his binder of monthly newspapers. Here’s one from 2009: “A single mom with three children informed me that her employer is increasing her work hours from 15 per week to 30 per week. The reason: She is a good worker and she shows up on time! She was ecstatic, and sends out a HUGE Thank You to all the MUMs drivers who get her to work.”
I read more: “One of our male passengers does community service work to help pay for his subsidized apartment. As we transport him to work, he has started asking about how to pray and what it means to follow Christ. … He will be asking more questions during future rides with our drivers. please pray for him.” A newsletter from 2010 listed results: “Jamie got to nurse certification training. Kelly got to the Career Center for job training—she and her minus-one-month-old son (she’s due Sept. 21st) thank you. Pat got home from work at LifeCare—she and the patients she cleans for thank you. Katricia got to the hospital for burn treatment therapy (and back home).”
Items from 2011 newsletters: “Marilyn and her Down-Syndrome child are going grocery shopping. Katricia is going to get her new glasses. Howard is going to dialysis. Pam has been unemployed until one month ago. As soon as she got a job, she called MUMs and we have been taking her to work and back five days a week. Soon she will have a down payment for her own car. Last month we gave over 600 rides like these, including rides to pharmacies, doctors, job interviews, college classes, probation, Columbia Pregnancy Center.”
Items from 2012: “Debbie has gone through training and has gotten a job at Kroger’s. She is now riding to work with friends, having outgrown her need for us! We always like to see that. Demeca is driving to work every day, taking her kids to school activities, and grocery-shopping IN HER OWN VAN. local automotive technology school has agreed to do all the repair work for MUMs with no charge for labor. Traci, Colleen, and Lisa have gone back to Project Learn and are all working on their GEDs. Through exposure to our wonderful volunteer drivers, we have seen many of our passengers drawing closer to our Lord Jesus. All our drives have been safe. This makes 156 months in a row. Thank you, Lord.”
Items from 2013: “A word from one of our former passengers, now a registered medical assistant: ‘I used MUMs to get back and forth to Columbia State. I didn’t have the means to pay for transportation and at the time I was pregnant and going through a really rough time. The drivers never judged me and were always willing to be an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, offer advice, and pray with and for me. If it weren’t for MUMs I wouldn’t have been able to further my education. In Christ, Stephanie.”
Mum's Transportation Ministry
2013 revenues: $56,857
2013 expenses: $56,199
Net assets at the end of 2012: $6,674
Executive director Randy Nichol's salary and benefits: $33,306
Staff: 1 full-time
2014 budget: $63,949
The beauty of MUMs is that it could happen in any car-centric community. The beauty of the St. Roch Community Development Corporation is that it is so New Orleans. It has risen from Katrina disaster. It is responsible for brightly painted frame houses that CDC head Ben McLeish once could buy low and renovate with volunteer help. It has succeeded in selling or renting them to those who can anchor a poor neighborhood, but that success is making future success harder.
The strategy has been sound. The CDC bought one big orange house for $40,000, put more than $100,000 into it, and sold it to a teacher for $180,000. It bought a smaller one for $30,000, put in $55,000 of improvements, and sold it for $90,000. A once-waterlogged house is now wonderfully purple with red doors: It’s home to four young Christians who pay $210 each and build relationships with young men and adolescents in the sometimes-violent neighborhood.
A walk around the neighborhood shows other improvements. The CDC renovated an old corner store and a shotgun house and converted them into a sanctuary and parsonage for the St. Roch Community Church (PCA). It converted a storage garage and studio apartment into church program space and a home for the St. Roch artist-in-residence, an annual appointment. To make these upgrades long-time residents pitched in alongside young adults who came to New Orleans during the summers after Katrina hit, and fell in love with the city.
The good news now is that property values are soaring. The bad news is also that property values are soaring. Nearby St. Claude Avenue is now the hippest avenue in America, according to The New York Times, with restaurants, night clubs, workout facilities, art galleries, and alternative healing centers. McLeish wants to see houses fixed, streets repaired, and schools improved, but he wonders what will happen to poor residents priced out of where they grew up.
McLeish hopes to unite aspirations with economic realities. He wants to increase the savvy of residents through a Faith and Finances programs (developed by the Chalmers Center of Covenant College) that teaches about tracking savings and expenses so as to build productive assets. The CDC is opening a thrift store that will provide jobs for residents and generate funds to invest in small-business ventures such as window washing and lawn care.
But class and racial tensions are always present. The New Orleans city administration spent $3.7 million renovating the St. Roch Market, a beautiful, historic building, but a dispute now rages about whether the building should feature fancy shops selling wine and cheese, or shops affordable to long-time neighborhood residents. At one neighborhood meeting, young hipsters voiced their outrage about police flashing blue lights and not letting them drink beer on boulevard median strips (in New Orleans parlance, “neutral ground”). Older African-American men responded, “Are you joking me? Do you have any idea what we’ve experienced from police harassment in our lives?”
Half a century after New Orleans school segregation ended, McLeish says, one teacher has found “she can’t teach her kids about 6-year-old Ruby Bridges desegregating schools because it doesn’t mean anything. [See “Quiet heroism,” Jan. 24, 2004.] There is no desegregation for many kids in New Orleans. They look around their [public school] classroom and everybody is black.” McLeish and others last year launched the Homer A. Plessy Community School, “where the hallways reflect the sidewalks of our neighborhoods.” It’s named after the loser in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) that enshrined for a half-century the fairy tale of “separate but equal” in race relations.
The school, McLeish says, emphasizes creativity and problem-solving, and he hopes children will develop an entrepreneurial mindset. By providing assistance to small businesses and nonprofits he hopes to fan into flame the entrepreneurial spirits of adults. He has other goals: “We’d like to own as many houses as we could.” He also hopes to buy larger properties that could becomes assisted living homes and medical centers.
Meanwhile, the St. Roch neighborhood continues to face violence and drugs. At the end of July, gangs of kids armed with bats beat up two men near the neutral ground. McLeish last year mourned the death of Eric Green, a 21-year-old African-American who had become like a son to him: “My hunch is that you knew Jesus and were known by Him, though the brokenness of this world seemed to have you entrapped. … You were on an intense search to make pain & brokenness go away but it seemed like nothing could medicate the deep wounds. We reassured you of our love for you and our deep concern that the path you were on would lead to your demise. Never did I imagine so soon.” —Marvin Olasky
Read profiles of the other finalists and runners-up in the 2014 Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition.
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