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Profiles in compassion

Most Americans wouldn't have to travel far to find a group that is remembering the poor and helping them change their lives

Profiles in compassion

From sea to shining sea, biblical compassion is alive and well in the United States. Here are capsule profiles of eight organizations that help the poor not only during the Christmas season but all through the year.

Boston: Network Savings & Training

Rev. Brian Gearin, a missionary in the Philippines from 1984 to 1997, is putting to use in Boston what he learned from helping Filipinos extricate themselves from poverty. Network Savings & Training operates in cycles, each focused specifically on purchasing a home, starting a business, or gaining higher education.

Individuals in the 50-week business startup and home-buying cycles are required to save $30 each week for a year. The education cycle requires high-school students to save $5 to $15 per week for future education, funds that are matched by a sponsor. Students also have a 26-week class in financial literacy.

The first two home-buying cycles graduated 121 students and resulted in 20 people purchasing their own homes. Rev. Gearin then launched a micro-enterprise component to assist enrollees to augment incomes by starting small businesses. Businesses launched from the program include a florist, a counseling center, a computer repair shop, and a daycare facility.

"Participants learn the discipline of saving," Rev. Gearin emphasizes, and begin to repair bad credit ratings. They also learn "life skills [and] self-sufficiency tools that they, in turn, pass on to their family and neighbors."

His program recruits and trains facilitators from Boston churches who are required to save along with program participants. A support network of affiliated churches brings to bear spiritual challenge. "Even if enrollees are not churchgoers," Mr. Gearin says, "they find that the church still has an integrity that allows them to follow the tenets of the program. . . . Participants are accountable to each other, to themselves, and to God."

Denver: Providence Homes

"Most people who are homeless don't need housing," says Kevin Grenier. "Most people who come to Providence haven't had a stable home life," and what they need most are life skills that will help them interact with others both in workplaces and residences.

In the six Providence Homes 60 residents and 16 live-in staff members try to build a community; men and women in separate homes often stay for two years. Everyone works at least 20 hours per week in outside jobs or in a home, and tenants must pay $300 per month for their room and board. Tenants also must attend counseling sessions, Bible studies, accountability meetings, and vocational training. Providence Founder Andy Cannon says that one goal is to "get them away from an entitlement mentality."

Addicts must attend Recovery in Christ meetings. Weekly church attendance is also required; a tenant who is already a member of a church may attend services there. "We don't require that people who stay at Providence be Christian," Mr. Grenier says. "There is no unwanted proselytizing, but tenants have to be prepared to work Christian principles into their daily framework. A vast majority have lost everything and burned every bridge, and they wind up becoming believers."

Before homeless individuals become permanent residents, they must go through interviews to see if they are willing to follow Providence house rules. "Many of these people are con artists who are used to lying in order to get what they want," Mr. Grenier says. "Approximately 20 percent of them will either be asked to leave or leave of their own accord after the first three months."

He concludes, "When most people come to us, they have no socialization skills whatsoever. When they leave, they are a member of a community. They know how to ask when they sincerely need help. Conversely, they know how to offer help to others when they see it's needed."

Houston: Casa de Esperanza

In 1982, Kathy Foster, a nun and social worker, and Bill Jones, an infant-development specialist, were tired of hearing about babies being abused or abandoned in phone booths and dumpsters.

They took a small house in Houston's Third Ward that had been gutted in a crack cocaine fire, and with the help of friends, transformed it into Casa de Esperanza de los Ninos (House of Hope for Children). As castaway children materialized on the doorstep, social workers warned them, "You're taking the worst children in the city." Ms. Foster replied, "That's exactly what we hope to do." She later left her religious order to adopt six children while running the organization.

What began with one house has expanded to nine, plus a center focusing on the medical, developmental, and educational needs of children who have been abused or abandoned. In each of the houses, four to six children are placed in a family-like setting with two house parents who provide intensive nurturing. Then most are placed with foster parents. Since its inception, Casa has taken in more than 2,000 children, and 153 have been placed for adoption.

Casa accepts children from birth to six years of age. The earlier the intervention, the more likely damage can be reversed. Example: When one tiny, 4-day-old newborn refused to eat, the doctor explained that the baby's mother had been raped, and that she had tried to abort him and then done drugs during her pregnancy. "This is a failure-to-thrive baby," he told Ms. Foster. "This baby wants to commit suicide. You are going to have to convince him that he is wanted, that he is loved." Round-the-clock attention ignited the child's desire to live. Later adopted, he will soon graduate from college.

Grand Rapids: Baxter Community Center

For two decades Baxter has provided affordable medical and dental help to poor people (most with annual incomes below $5,000) who would otherwise frequent hospital emergency rooms. As program director Melanie J. Beelen explains, "Their care would normally be fragmented, and they might go to one emergency room one day, another one the next day, or to perhaps another clinic setting that isn't able to provide primary care."

At Baxter, she notes, medical volunteers charging minimal amounts get to know their patients: "Patients learn how to build a relationship with their primary care provider and how to take their children in for appropriate healthcare. [They learn] what appropriate healthcare is, which is that both babies and adults need to receive checkups on a regular basis."

Ms. Beelen says that over 850 patients were treated in 2003, with 125 of them receiving counseling and spiritual help: "We see people who have been wounded in the past by a church or have no church attachment, so they are not only coming to us in need of medical and psychological care." She tells of a driver who hit a child with his car, and instead of helping, yelled a racial epithet at him; physical wounds healed, but spiritual success only became evident when the boy was able to forgive the driver who hit him.

Baxter's Christian response to physical and emotional needs also shows when medical needs go beyond what the clinic can offer; for example, a volunteer Baxter doctor helped a child diagnosed with cancer to receive the best care available in Grand Rapids. Since Baxter's medical and offic professionals are from a variety of races, Ms. Beelen says, "Coming together as a group can created by our very presence a racial reconciliation that is apparent to both God and the Grand Rapids community."

Raleigh: Jobs Partnership

When inner-city pastor Donald McCoy called Chris Magnum's Raleigh, N.C., company about getting a parking lot paved, his call was diected to the boss's line. As Mr. McCoy listed to Mr. Mangum lament that 10 of his trucks were parked because they need drivers, Mr. McCoy mentioned that members of his congregation were "parked" because they needed jobs.

This providential encounter gave birth to Jobs Partnership, a church-based mentoring program that takes unemployed people through a 12-week program and prepares them to be successful in the work force.

The first track of the training, "Keys to Personal and Professional Success," uses biblical precepts to guide participants through an examination of their attitudes toward God, authority, and work, while addressing issues such as conflict resolution, integrity, and stewardship.

"Steps to Personal and Professional Success," the second track, has personnel experts assisting job applicants in completing applications, submitting resumés, and prepping for interviews. Partners in the business community pool their contacts to provide leads on jobs.

Once hired, each new employee receives a workplace "buddy" who answers questions and provides encouragement. Mentors from area churches also agree to help the new employees by providing backup transportation, childcare, housing assistance, or budget coaching when necessary.

The approach seems to be working: After one year of placement, 84 percent of graduates are still employed. The success of Jobs Partnership has led to its replication in 32 other locations.

Rev. Skip Long, director of Jobs Partnership in Raleigh, said the relationships formed through the program have produced some unexpected benefits, such as racial reconciliation between mentors and job seekers. Another unanticipated outcome: 87 graduates have moved into their first homes. "We are connecting disconnected people," Mr. Long says.

New York City: Resources

This Brooklyn organization started with a wrong turn on a sweltering day when Monsignor Ronald Marino was looking for used furniture. He stumbled upon a room filled with Chinese women and children hunched over sewing machines, behind windows painted to hide them from passersby. As he learned that sweatshops were not a thing of the past, Mr. Marino "started to get obsessed with the work issue for immigrants."

Curious about how government-sponsored job programs functioned, Mr. Marino did some undercover work, posing as a man seeking to change careers. He learned that the government paid programs according to the number of participants, not the number placed in jobs. Program managers told him off the record that he was employable since he spoke English, but that most immigrants didn't have a chance.

With this knowledge and a startup grant of $50,000 from Italian businessmen, Mr. Marino in 1994 launched Resources, a program designed to help immigrants move into the work force by first teaching them English and then computer graphics, commercial cleaning, or cooking. Trainees receive on-the-job training in these fields by working in nonprofit businesses Resources established.

Now, cooking students receive three semesters of training, totaling 300 hours. They do apprenticeships with local restaurateurs, and if they perform well usually get hired for a permanent position. Trainees in commercial cleaning receive 120 hours of instruction before being sent out in teams to fulfill contracts with local schools and businesses. Those who show managerial promise head up work teams, learn to handle customers, purchase supplies, and direct other workers.

Immigrants learning graphic arts produce newsletters and letterhead for local churches, then corporate customers. Competent trainees in all the businesses can spin off their own companies and take several customers with them.

Several years after the program's inception, Mr. Marino realized that immigrants were bringing talents he had overlooked. Many of them came from countries where they were jacks-of-all-trades, skilled as carpenters, plumbers, and painters. So Mr. Marino added a fourth company by hiring participants out to do repairs, construction, and carpentry.

Those four nonprofits now generate more than $1 million annually. More than 600 immigrants have received training, and 98 percent of them are employed. The basis of the success, Mr. Marino states, is the faith that "we are made in the image of Christ. In order for me to find my dignity, I need to help you find yours. If you serve Christ, you see Him in the person you serve. You discover your own dignity in seeing Him in others."

Memphis: Neighborhood Housing Opportunities

For many Memphis residents living within public housing in a low-end wage market, owning a home often seemed impossible-until the Memphis Leadership Foundation decided to challenge that assumption.

The foundation in 1989 created Neighborhood Housing Opportunities (NHO) to build affordable housing for low-income families, and then go one step further by teaching participants how to become responsible homeowners.

NHO counselors work with applicants to assess credit worthiness, assemble necessary documentation, verify employment and income, and develop a budget. They then coach the applicants on how to present their cases to loan officers. Families not yet able to own a home can get an extra boost living in Interim House for 12 to 24 months. Here families can reduce debt while saving for a down payment and furniture. They also receive counseling that addresses their spiritual needs. NHO offers approved applicants three-bedroom homes for $65,000, featuring a monthly payment of $525. Local church volunteers assist in the construction, and to reduce the final cost, applicants invest their own "sweat equity."

The homes are built in clusters in three areas of the city, which helps create order and preserve the property value. Neighborhood associations are established to increase stability. A walk up one of the streets reveals cared-for lawns and shrubs, with no cars up on cinderblocks as there are several blocks away.

Since its founding, NHO has built 200 homes at an estimated value of $13 million and has had only three foreclosures. The city is so enthusiastic about NHO's success that it donated the land for a new project that has 60 houses sprouting up, and some biblical understanding as well. "Housing is the platform," Executive Director Howard Eddings says: "The backbone is the opportunity to speak the gospel into the lives of the people we serve."

Fresno: One by One Leadership

In 1983, Fresno, Calif., had the unenviable status of the least livable city in the United States. With an influx of Latin American, Lao, Cambodian, Hmong, and Vietnamese immigrants and refugees, the once sleepy agricultural town had ballooned into the sixth-largest city in the state. Poverty and crime were rampant, unemployment was in double digits, teenage pregnancy was soaring, and more than 100 gangs prowled the streets.

Some civic leaders teamed with pastors, police, and business leaders to target apartment complexes where crime was rampant. Apartment owners agreed to allow volunteers from local churches to work within the complex to offer constructive activities for would-be troublemakers. Police stepped up patrols and cracked down on drug dealers. Crime dropped by 65 percent to 70 percent.

One by One Leadership emerged from experiences like that with the goal of sparking civic renewal. For example, when a medical center prepared to expand near a high-crime neighborhood and fence out the surrounding community, One by One built up a neighborhood association so that residents would have a voice in planning renewal. As the medical center began offering training for entry-level positions and local schools increased their class offerings in English as a Second Language, the center and the neighborhood began to see each other as partners rather than adversaries.

One by One has since mobilized former welfare recipients to mentor families transitioning from welfare. The organization has taken at-risk youth on camping trips with police officers who mentor the youth, and in doing so decrease the likelihood of future run-ins with the law. Now One by One is recruiting mentors for children of prisoners.

Another program has mobilized and trained teams from 87 churches to serve in ministries throughout Fresno. Volunteers offer parental education, after-school programs, assistance to battered women, and counseling for substance abusers.

Fresno's transformation earned it the status of an "All-American" city in 2000.

-Barbara J. Elliott founded the Center for Renewal in Houston and is the author of Street Saints: Renewing America's Cities (2004). Bruce Walker provided information on the Boston, Grand Rapids, and Denver groups, all of which received awards from the Acton Institute's Center for Effective Compassion earlier this month.

Barbara J. Elliott

Barbara J. Elliott