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Stories of Transformation

 

Monday
Apr202015

Hope in a Phone Call

It is two weeks after the sixth term of Momentum had ended, and I just received two more phone calls from participants, that makes 6 phone calls or texts since the graduation.

But before I tell you what they said let’s back up a bit.

The Momentum Employment Solutions Program is an intensive 6-week employment readiness program that is open to just about anyone. While on the surface it may look simple, it is far from simple.  We work with those who society has often thrown out, given up on, or forgotten.  Over 60% of the participants of Momentum are classified as homeless, 97% have significant criminal backgrounds, 80% have stopped believing they will ever be able to provide for themselves or their family, and over 90% have current substance abuse issues.  Which is why an enormous part of the program is not about new skills, is not about creating a perfect resume or having the right clothes, the program is about creating hope.  While we do help develop new skills, help each participant create a wonderful resume, and make sure each has the appropriate clothes for an interview, the best part of each term is seeing that spark return to their eyes. 

At the start of each term, we stand before a classroom filled with skeptics who look at us with big doubts about whether we are able to help and, to be fair, I would expect nothing less. Because why would this program be any different than the various other programs that have tried to “fix them.” We are not trying to “fix them.” We are partnering with them to help them see that they have the ability to help themselves. Helping them to see that buried within all their pain and hurt is a wonderful person who mainly needs love, encouragement and some additional support and guidance in order to thrive. 

It is virtually impossible to predict who will fully embrace the process we ask them to undertake when they enroll in Momentum, but we love being surprised by those who graduate. Sometimes the very individuals that you think would never make it are the ones that exceed all your expectations.

The participants of Momentum are like so many we encounter each and every day. They are individuals who, like all of us, are looking for purpose, direction, and hope. While society tends to see them as statistics, and clumps their collective failures together, they are individuals and have a story they are desperately trying share.  If we choose to focus on the enormous amount of people who need help, we will miss the individual that just needs a hand up.  If we try to solve all of a neighborhood’s problems at once, we can easily become overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer amount of work. However, if we focus on one individual, we might just change a life.

Back to those phone calls. Each call was the completion of a journey and the start of a new journey. A new journey where the graduates were starting to write their new story; one of hope and excitement.  The phone calls went something like this “ I got the job!” or “I start next Monday!” often followed by “I never thought I would have a job like this again!”  This is what hope renewed looks like. This is an empowered individual. This is how lasting change begins.

Momentum is not a silver bullet and we will never claim to have all of the answers, but we chose to focus on each individual; to help one individual at a time and work relationally.  One size does not fit all, but love and hope are universally needed.  While we are leading the charge in helping these individuals in creating hope, we do not have super skills or impressive credentials. We are simply choosing to interact relationally with each participant and creating hope through that relationship. This is work that most are capable of doing, and we need your help to ensure each participant gets the care they deserve. Please consider volunteering at Urban Alliance, and giving the powerful gift of hope.

 

Luke Kujacznski, Interim Director of UA

Wednesday
Apr152015

Building More than a House

I had to lift the hem of my skirt to walk through mounds of wet garbage and junk furniture to get to the back door of 907 Hays Park. All that I could think of was another number…409…gallons and gallons of it to clean this place! Any reasoning that this abandoned house could offer a viable dwelling place any time soon was crushed by the stench of refuse and decay, rotted out flooring, and caving ceiling tiles. As I traversed from one dilapidated room to the next, I questioned, “THIS is a place that will bring hope and stability to someone in need? It will take 907 weeks for that to happen!” Facing a project like 907 alone would certainly give credence to those thoughts of doubt. Then the truth settled in; this house reconstruction is not a journey for one person alone. This house is where community will come together to help transform a neighborhood.

The night before my “parade of homes” tour, unfamiliar lives gathered around a kitchen table to begin hashing out plans to rebuild this house. Conversation shifted from the 907 things needing to be done to accomplish the goal of making this structure livable to the life stories that gave each person there a desire to be part of this journey of restoration.

Partner one, a seasoned builder who has chosen to add this project to the other three that he is currently working on in the same neighborhood. Though he has walked through similar properties like 907 many times, he brings no callousness to the work ahead. He is investing in people, not just a project. As Director of His Kingdom Housing, he is building relationships with Edison community members and making a way for them to have access to quality and affordable housing.

Next, a passionate young man whose love for people in the Edison neighborhood began on a street corner sharing chili and hot chocolate with anyone who was hungry. He loves his neighborhood and wants to contribute to its growth. 907, even in its crumbling condition, is an answer to his prayer, “God, give me a way to have greater impact in Edison.” To this man, 907 is a gift.

Finally, the former drug dealing, gang member who is stamping out the echoes of his former life that he lived not far from 907 through his organization, Peace During War. To hear his journey through stray bullets and multiple stints in prison and then see how his life now shines a picture of renewal to those continuing to perpetrate the same crimes that he once committed on this same street, is stuff that many people only read about or see in movies. Yet, his kind of transformation IS happening in Edison.

The structure at 907 Hays Park will be restored to a place that can be called a home. As these three men engage their friends, neighbors, business associates, church leaders, and mentees in the process, they are also inviting YOU to help as an Urban Alliance volunteer. But know this, along the way, more important work than home improvement will take place. Friendships will grow, problems will be solved, and stereotypes will be shattered. 907 is just one instrument used to build this community.

 

~ Shelbi Cummings, Director of Community Engagement                                                           

 

Monday
Apr062015

Good Friday

My day begins at 8am as I start by prepping the classroom for today's Momentum class. It is just one of three, one hour classes that happen everyday as part of the six week job readiness program. This particular class is on Communication and Teamwork.

This is a workshop that I have facilitated dozens of time through several different programs I have been a part of over the years. It is an exercise where individuals are placed into several groups, at tables where they are given a myriad of different materials; large sheets of paper, tape, two liter bottles, cups, paper plates, etc. Then they are given a task: utilizing only the materials given to work together to design and build a free-standing structure that is over 5 feet in height. The trick is you only have 10 minutes to plan and then 10 more minutes to build the structure.

The Momentum students begin. After a flurry of hurried excitement, filled with shouting, laughter, tension and fun, we end up with several structures. Some more successful than others. All of them unique. Some very unique.

After the exercise, we discuss the process we all just experienced. We talk about the conflicts, the challenges in communication and the roles each team member naturally assumed. At the end of the discussion, as each table attempted to build a separate structure, I ask, "Why didn't anyone think about pooling their resources and coming together to build one, stronger, better supplied structure?" Silence.

Soon a new discussion erupts filled with statements like, "I didn't even think about it" and "you never told us we could do that!" Students begin to realize what the exercise is really about: thinking outside of your box, breaking down walls, breaking free from your preconceptions and getting outside of your comfort zone.

The rest of my day is filled with helping these same students walk out, in their present realities, these same principles. I sit down with one gentleman and help him fill out applications to transitional housing services.  The last three weeks he has been attending Momentum, but has been technically homeless. He has been living from house to house, anywhere a friend or acquaintance will take him in for the night. I am confronted with another Momentum graduate who is working and got paid today through direct deposit, but can't access the money in his bank because it is closed for Good Friday. He is panicking because this will be the first Easter in years he will have money to buy Easter gifts for his kids. Because he is utilizing a credit union for the first time, he is now realizing the impact of Holidays.

Flash forward. It's now 8pm. I just get off the phone with another student who wasn't in class today because she had gotten into a physical altercation with her fiancé last night. We were weighing her options, because her fiancé is leaving her and moving out of state. He is getting on a bus tonight. To top it off, she is pregnant with his baby. She has called to beg me not to kick her out of Momentum because it is the only "positive thing I have left in my life." Of course I am not going to kick her out.

I am exhausted. Mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. I open my iPad for the first time today and go on to Facebook. Through similar posts from many of my friends, I realize I missed going to Good Friday service today. But, instead of feeling like I missed out, I feel thankful. Thankful that Urban Alliance has presented me an opportunity to celebrate Good Friday in a different way. My mind goes back to the exercise I did with the class earlier today and I realize that Urban Alliance has enabled me to get outside of my comfort zone, pool my resources, break down walls, and help build structures with other people who also didn't make it to a Good Friday service. I am honored to celebrate His sacrifice by sharing in it; by doing His work.

It WAS a good Friday!

 

Brian Parsons, Director of Momentum