WE NEED MORE SPACE

Monika Grasley–Lifeline CDC of Merced County

That is what I keep hearing when I coach folks at a community center… and I love the nagging. :-)   Over the last few months the community is coming together to make things happen… all out of a small (1300sf) community center.

Outside it is sweltering hot with over 100 degrees and not safe due to gang and drug violence (at least for now), but inside is another story.  People from all races, ages and economic groups come together to create a better neighborhood.

In this town there are no playgrounds, no swimming pools, no camps … so they do it themselves!  Community members created a leadership team and together they planned out the summer:  tie dye shirts out of donated packages of Easter egg coloring and old t-shirts,  signing up for library cards and participating in the “Dream Big: Read” program, making crafts projects, having water balloon games, and reading are just some of the ways they are enjoying each other’s ‘gifts.’  The participants are learning to eat healthier snacks through a partnership with the County Human Service Agency, they have Boswick the Clown come visit through a partnership with the library, they are planting a small garden taught by a community member, and they go to the movies.

This community center is transforming! There is not only the “Kid’s Time”, but there are computer classes for seniors, ESL classes, and people using the computers to look for jobs and update their resumes. People are sharing their knowledge and referring each other to organizations to take care of some needs. A Spanish Church calls it their home, a NA group meets twice a week, and a Community Bible Study is there during lunch. There are partnerships with groups, and groups using the facility. The community center is a common place, a place of conversation, a place of sharing, a place of belonging.  What started out 5 years ago as a weekly food give-away is becoming a place where people listen to each other, hear one another’s stories, and help each other out.

More exciting for me though are the deeper questions that are starting to be asked: Who is the new chain store employing? Are these local people? Do they sell fresh local fruits and vegetables? Why do we not have a bank in town and how do we get one? How do we work with the police to get rid of the gangs? These are the questions that tell me that a community is changing. The questions are not about personal comfort, not about ‘what do I get out of it’, not about individual issues only, but about justice issues: local employment opportunities, fresh local groceries, equal access to resources. It is about the systemic issues that need to be addressed.

When we talk about community transformation in the Asset Based Community Development framework  we need to talk about systemic change. I don’t think that it is possible to have individuals change without it affecting the whole community.  But if you get enough people to make small choices acting on the things they care about you will notice change within the community. When individuals change and have access to more resources (by building relationships, exchanging gifts and skills with each other) then they are more likely to look at the bigger issues: Why do they not have access to healthier foods? Why is the library not open more hours? Why do the police not respond to calls? Why is there no employment in town?

So when people want more space… we will look for more space… because people are dreaming big: a place to exercise, have classes (GED, literacy, Bible, ESL), designated reading areas for kids, and so much more. As we work in partnerships with schools, groups, churches and other non-profits we know we are all struggling for funds to make it happen… but a recent $20,000 gift for a stipend for a community member to keep the center open longer is a good start.  :-)

Four Men Giving Abundantly During Hard Times

Monika Grasley–Lifeline CDC of Merced County

LifeLine CDC has a saying: “Everyone no matter how rich has a need. Everyone no matter how poor has a gift. That is why we build and celebrate community.” ™  We were able to experience that again with one of our partners in Winton, California, a small rural community with over 30% unemployment.  There four men have stepped forward, giving abundantly of their gifts despite hard times.

Two years ago David, a Winton community member, returned to Winton after finishing his 4 year college degree in Business. He returned hoping to find a job but was unable to do so. Instead he started volunteering at the Winton Community Center.  Last year David assisted at the Community Center with the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program, and this year he headed  up the program.  The VITA program helped over 70 individuals and families get their taxes prepared for free and brought over $80,000 back into the community. These low-income families had no other way to get their taxes done during these difficult economic times, and were so thankful for the service.

Winton LifeLine Community Center is a site for the Work Experience Program for the County. These men and women work at the Winton Community Center for a few hours a day learning new skills and helping them with the community work.  George and Francisco came to work with the center because they could not find employment. During the many conversations we found that both have amazing gifts in auto mechanics and are generally able to fix just about anything.

The first project they worked on was a passenger bus that belongs to LifeLine CDC and is being used in Winton. This bus is being used for transporting the youth to do the graffiti abatement, assist moving people, picking up and dropping off donations, and transporting senior citizens to special events.

After successfully fixing the bus they worked on several other projects.  As the team talked about exchanging gifts they came up with the idea of having a car repair clinic. What if these men would help some of the seniors get some minor repairs done and teach some of the community members to do their own maintenance … that would be a blessing for everyone! So the plans are being made to have a community wide ‘car clinic’ and the contacts with the Vintage Car Club will make this an even bigger event!

At the same time Chico came to the center and starting volunteering his time.  In his broken English he stated one day: “I will start cleaning your bathroom. You don’t have to worry about it anymore. I will do it for Jesus and I know how to do it good.” We thanked him and he said “No, thank you, you give me purpose again.”

All four men felt useless, unemployed, and under-used and yet in the context of community conversations all got to use their gifts and abilities to help others.

When we say that everyone has a gift, we mean it! So, not a day goes by when we don’t discover one more gift that makes the community richer, that brings the Shalom of God into the neighborhood. When David assists someone with taxes, he blesses the community, when George and Francisco fix the cars they bless the community, when Chico cleans the bathroom he blesses the community. We often hear about the ‘tipping point’  and we are looking forward to the time when the teams slogan “Putting Winton on the map for something good” becomes a reality!

 

The Christmas Gifts were ON the Tree

Monika Grasley-LifeLine CDC of Merced County

Winton, California is known for unemployment, drug abuse and gangs, but for a growing number of community members it is becoming a community of hope, caring and working together. Several years ago a number of community members decided to “Put Winton on the map for something good” for a change and so under Ernie Solis’s leadership (who is coached in Asset Based Community Development) more and more people are working together for the common good.

This Christmas a neighbor donated a Christmas tree to the small community center that is the hub for many activities. Since there was no money for fancy decorations every community member who entered the center received a plain blank Christmas ornament and was asked to write on it one of their gifts  (skills, abilities, passions) that they are willing to share with the community. The end result was a beautiful tree decorated with gifts.

As part of the ongoing conversation several people wanted to put a Christmas dinner together for the homeless of the community, but then decided it should be open to everyone. The word got out; people volunteered. Some purchased turkeys and supplies, others were willing to cook them, some wanted to help with decorating, others brought what they had. And so on December 29 a beautiful feast was spread out: Turkey, mashed potatoes, beans, stuffing, dessert, coffee, and cider. Everyone brought what they had and shared in this amazing feast.

Over 100 neighbors filled the room as Christmas music played in the background, and laughter and conversation filled the space. Gang members and seniors, young and old, undocumented community members and old-timers, homeless and business people all sitting beside each other and enjoying a beautiful time while the Christmas tree filled with gifts of community members stood in the corner of the room.

People who would never interact with each other under normal circumstances now heard each other’s stories. People who had prejudices against each other sat beside each other and broke down some walls. LifeLine CDC has a saying that “Everyone no matter how rich has a need. Everyone no matter how poor has a gift. That is why we build and celebrate community.”  It was a beautiful sight to see this happening and know that it is one small part of community transformation.

Trees in the Desert!

Monika Grasley – LifeLine CDC – CA

Isaiah 41 has a beautiful passage: “When the poor and needy are dying of thirst and cannot find water, I, the LORD God of Israel, will come to their rescue. I won’t forget them. I will make rivers flow on mountain peaks……. I will fill the desert with all kinds of trees…. Everyone will see this and know that I, the holy LORD God of Israel, created it all.”

Winton is in the middle of the ‘agricultural bread bowl of the world’ and yet the town is like a desert, with few trees to give shade during the hot summer months, streets without sidewalks for the children to walk to school and with gang activities that make it unsafe to visit the local park.

During community conversations it became clear that the community wanted more trees for the main street (Winton Way). Under Ernie and Adrian’s leadership community members researched what could be done.

They found out that a group has been working with the local state prison to grow trees for nearby communities. They learned that the local middle school was in the process to get some of the trees for their campus.

So their journey began!

  • They spoke with the County and received permission to plant the trees and to have the county maintain them. The County also donated some of the equipment.
  • They spoke with the business community and local volunteers to get them to commit to water the trees in front of their businesses.
  • They spoke with the school and prison to get 20 trees donated.
  • They spoke with community members to make it a joint effort of planting who brought with them the tools and expertise.

So when the day neared to plant the trees it was a day of celebration! So many community members came out to help with it, so many enjoyed the fruit of their labor.

2 weeks ago was the spring parade in Winton and the little trees were in bloom for the enjoyment of the community.

We hope and pray that these trees will have “Everyone see this and know that I, the holy LORD God of Israel, created it all.”

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Quite a LifeLine in Winton

Monika Grasley – LifeLine CDC – CA

Ernie Solis was LifeLine’s first AmeriCorps member 4 years ago and continues to be a strong voice in the community. This is one of the projects that he and a team of community members have been working on. Organized by community members a collaborative law clinic is being piloted in Winton, California, thanks to the leadership of Ernie Solis. This article appeared in the Merced Sun-Star newspaper:

A free legal clinic is planned for Winton on July 9. The Free Winton Legal Clinic is a product of the collaboration between Winton LifeLine Community Center, Merced County Public Defender, Central California Legal Services and UC Merced Law Clinic. The purpose of the clinic is to make free legal services and information available to Winton residents.

Winton LifeLine Community Center has been part of the community for several years. LifeLine has become a force for improving the community by engaging in graffiti abatement, involving the local youth in this project and working on other projects.

I first met LifeLine representative Ernie Solis several months ago….

Read more: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2011/07/02/1954561/vincent-andrade-quite-a-lifeline.html#ixzz1Rihuc5o5

One More Handout or One Hand-Up?

Recently I met with a church that wanted to do an event in a specific neighborhood we are involved in. Their great heart and passion to help people was apparent . They wanted to be a blessing to the under-resourced community, wanted to be the hands and feet of Jesus. And they already had a plan…. give out food and clothing…have games and prizes for the kids… share the Gospel message….pray for the hurting people… invite them to church…love them with the love of Jesus. Their hearts were in the right place, they wanted to spend their time and energy outside their church.

Constituent transformation starts with offering people a new frame of reference. What really happens when we just do these “parachute jumps” into a community? What does it look like from the other side, the side of the community members whose kids want to participate?

•    Strangers are coming in and interacting with my kids – can I trust them?
•    People are telling my kids about a God that I don’t know about – are they a sect? Will they mislead my children?
•    People give my kids snacks – but are they healthy? Are they safe?
•    Who said I need food and clothing? Do you not think I can provide for my own family?
•    If I take your food will I get more next month? I have gotten used to getting free stuff from churches.

Maybe these questions are not exactly what is on people’s minds, but I am sure that it undermines their dignity, that it makes them feel less capable of providing for their families, that it does not bring out the gifts, passions and abilities that these families have and that it creates a dependency on outside resources.

What if instead of spending the time, energy and money for a 2 hour event this church would ‘adopt’ a neighborhood? What if they would learn some of the Asset Based Community Development principles and practices and get involved in a neighborhood for 5 years? What if instead of handing out free stuff they would learn people’s names, find their passions and giftings and exchange those gifts? What if the church would come every week, not with cookies and soda, not with clothing and gifts, but with hearts open to see God’s image  in every person, with minds open to hear their stories and discover their amazing gifts and with hands willing to work side by side on the issues that the community sees as necessary?

What if the neighbors would see Christ lived out in the lives of the Christians and would want to experience some of that Shalom in their own lives? What if the church is invited to start a Bible study, not because they forced themselves in, but because the love of God was so evident that people are curious about a God who cares enough to be involved in that neighborhood?

What if they get to see a God who doesn’t give hand-outs and abandon them afterwards but a God who walks side by side with people helping them up the hill by giving a hand-up!

In the end the church went ahead with their outreach as planned, but we continue our dialog.

Monika Grasley
LifeLine CDC

Jerry the Organizer

“Hi this is Jerry from the …. apartments, you mentioned that you could bring the Bus Boutique to our apartment complex if we get it organized… is that still true?” I was pleasantly surprised. I met Jerry in his neighborhood several weeks prior during an event that our local Christian Radio station organized. The station wanted to bless an under resourced community and picked an apartment complex in partnership with several churches and Christian non-profits.  50+ Thanksgiving baskets had been distributed and then Thanksgiving morning the groups came with a bounce house for the kids and goodies for the adults. I was invited to join…but I did not bring anything, I just came to have conversations with the community members.

One of the principles of Asset Based Community Development is not to do things for others that they can do for themselves. We want to empower neighborhoods; we want them to be the decision maker and the owner of their projects. So I spent most of my time just listening and hanging out. It is amazing what you can find out! I gave them our information to let them know about the winter clothing on the Bus Boutique and that if they wanted the bus to come, they needed to organize it! … and so they did!

When we drove the Bus Boutique up to the apartment complex the whole group was out from young to old, having great conversations. They unpacked the bus, set things up, brought out the supplies that were needed and even had the things that we had forgotten.

They helped each other, helped the handicapped people who could not get on the bus and found clothing for each other. It was such a delight to see. In times when everyone is looking out for number one, they assembled a deep community spirit. We had great conversations, learned from each other and decided to work together on other things.

When the time came to a close they all helped put things away, cleaned up the area and thanked me before they helped me maneuver the bus out of the complex.

I am sure Jerry and I will have more conversations and under his natural leadership this ‘low income’ apartment complex is a ‘rich community’ on its own!

Monika Grasley
LifeLine CDC

Meadows Mural

Cana community change? Is there hope for a place with broken windows, high crime, gang activities and unsupervised children? YES there is! And it really only takes one person who does not want to have things stay that way.

In this case it was Tracey the new manager of a 100 unit low-income apartment complex that was the catalyst to get things started.

Over the last 1 ½ year an AmeriCorps member has been walking the neighborhood, getting to know community members, building relationships, and when the time was right, we had the opportunity to partner with Tracey to start a summer program for the children in the apartment complex.

A small group from Gateway Community Church and a couple of college students who wanted to volunteer, started with some arts and crafts with the children and in the process built relationships with the parents who are now part of it.  Together they meet and decide what they want to do.

The community members are empowered to voice their ideas and the ‘outsiders’ get to see how community development can work and what amazing gifts and passions and dreams are in the neighbors if they get a chance to voice it.

We believe that we are created in God’s image and that every person is unique with gifts and passions, and we believe that God moved into the neighborhood way before we ever thought about it.  So we get to interact with people in a brand new way, because a community that was seen as ‘hopeless’ and ‘poor’ and ‘under-resourced’ will now be seen ‘creative’, ‘empowered’ and ‘purposeful’.

We started with the children. Every day they see graffiti, violence, gang activities .. what if they see something beautiful? What if they would create something beautiful?

The manager offered us the use of one of the walls in the community room and an artist came to work with the children on developing a theme and laying out their painting… it was a beautiful sight. The kids were excited that they could create something, the artist was excited to use her gifts and the community ended up working together.

So many parents, grandparents and  guardians came to see the artwork and it created a buzz in the community.

Besides the mural, the kids planted flowers, helped with graffiti abatement and now clean up their grounds on a regular basis.

So where do we go from here? This is only the beginning. The community members are starting to talk about what is needed once the kids are back in school. Many of the families don’t have computers and wonder if we could get some computers in the community center for kids to do homework. They are talking about more BBQ’s and better security……
We are here to facilitate some of the work, but the community members are the key stakeholders in this.

We have a saying at LifeLine CDC “Every person no matter how rich has a need. Every person no matter how poor has a gift. That is why we build and celebrate community .”

Monika Grasley

lifelinecdc.org

When Worlds Need to Collide

Sometimes we need have our worlds collide to learn what it means to “act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We often think that giving to a cause, or feeding a homeless, or writing a letter to a congressman will suffice, but to really live out Micah 6:8  we need to interact with the people who are suffering from injustice, we need to show mercy by really being with a homeless person, we need to walk with our God by walking with our fellow human being.

At LifeLine we try to make those opportunities possible. One example is our Bus Boutique, a converted school bus that has new and gently used clothing and travels to various communities.

The Bus Boutique was a dream to bring clothing to under-resourced communities where the community members can barter (exchange the clothing) or volunteer in exchange for the goods. Manned by community volunteers the bus would provide clothing for families who often struggle with making ends meet. This opens doors for conversations and interaction with neighbors.

Radio Merced donated their former “Bear Bus” to LifeLine. John and Jim checked the bus and equipped it with the clothes racks.

Many volunteers donated clothing, while others washed and mended them. Sorting, storing and hanging are done by volunteers.  And then in the process we build relationships, because when you work together the barriers of ‘them’ and ‘us’ are broken down and all of a sudden the drug addict is no longer ‘them’ but is becoming a friend and we find out her story. We realize that the lack of justice and mercy in her life brought her to this point. We walk with her and we learn from each other and as we ‘walk humbly with our God’ we get to do life together.

The bus was painted as part of a worldwide community service for a major bank in the US. 6 members come out to paint the bus. They did an amazing job in several hours.  Last week we started with the final part, decorating the Bus Boutique. It was so much fun to see a young woman who cannot find a job (but has incredible artistic abilities), a single mother (who has the most organized mind and a passion for the success of the Bus Boutique), a homeless man (who has a master’s degree, is great with people and very creative), a welfare parent (who has a very giving heart and a dream to break the chain of poverty) and a number of students (all with their own stories), get together to decorate the Bus. People who never thought they could draw created a beautiful piece of art; people who thought they had nothing to give gave life to each other.

We create venues where people can do life together and we learn again what it means to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. Because when we build relationships with people, when we hear their stories, when we learn about each other, then we can live out Micah 6:8.

Monika Grasley

www.lifelinecdc.org

LifeLine Christmas Story 2009

Once upon a time, (actually late last week, or the week before, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a story) a little non-profit sat forlornly on the curb with its chin in its hands. It was Christmastime, and the little non-profit didn’t have any Christmas programs to offer.

All the other non-profits had their Christmas coat drives and dinners planned. They had shelters open and parties booked. They had fund drives and toy drives and Christmas concerts galore. But the little non-profit had none of these, and was feeling self-conscious.

“If I were a real non-profit, I’d have programs,” it moped.

But then a man shuffled by in a worn-out coat. “Do you have a coat drive, because as you see, mine is worn clear through?”
“No,” said the little non-profit, “I don’t have a coat drive. I’m sorry. All I have is this big bus full of clothes, but for that you need to give something back.”

“Like what?” questioned the man suspiciously.

“Well, what can you do? Do you have a skill or talent to give? After all, everyone has a need, and everyone has a gift.”

“I used to lay carpet,” said the man, “But I haven’t had work these last few months.”

“That will do nicely,” said the little non-profit, and they got up to go look in the big bus for a coat.  On the way there they met a woman with two little children. “Do you have a food drive? My children are hungry and the month is not yet half over.”

“No,” said the little non-profit, “I don’t have a food drive. I’m sorry. All I have is an emergency food pantry, but for that you need to give something back.”

“What do you mean?” asked the woman.

“Can you mend clothes?” asked the carpet layer in the worn out coat.

“Look at my children. Of course I can mend clothes,” replied the woman. Her children’s clothes seemed fine, but if you looked closely you could find here a patch or there a mended tear. But you had to look very closely indeed.

“Then come with us to the big bus,” said the little non-profit. “We have lots of donated clothes that need a little mending to make them good again. After all, everyone has a need, and everyone has a gift.”

Just as they all turned the corner, the little non-profit, the carpet layer, the seamstress and her children nearly collided with a young man on a skateboard.

“Do you have a Christmas concert I can go to? Something with Screamo?”

“No,” said the little non-profit, becoming a little more self-conscious with all these people in tow. “I don’t have a concert. All I have is a Community Center. The neighborhood children are out of school and need someone to spend time with them. Can you teach them anything? After all, everyone has a need, and everyone has a gift.”

“I can show them how to flip a skateboard,” offered the young man.  So after they had visited the big bus and picked out a warm coat for the carpet layer and taken a bag of mending for the seamstress, they all went by the Community Center. The food pantry was there, and the children were all lined up on a big roll of used carpet, eating a snack. The snack was made by a retired school teacher who gave four hours a week at the center. She also gave money that bought the snacks, and heated the building, and helped pay the staff. Of course only the little non-profit knew about that part. The children all took keen interest in the skateboard, and the carpet layer looked at the big roll of carpet and the bare concrete floor, and smiled a big smile.

And the little non-profit didn’t have time to worry about not having a concert or a coat drive or a Christmas program. There was too much going on in the community. “After all, everyone has a need, and everyone has a gift. That is why we build community.”

James Grasley

A Story of Transformation

The story of Joy and Jose:

Joy came to Winton LifeLine Community Center in need of emergency food. In the past the center gave out food to hundreds of people as they were standing in line, but we realized that this ‘quick fix’ made us feel good but really did not help the people look at their preferred future.

So, we changed our approach. We still help with emergency food, but not without hearing people’s stories, learning about their plans and dreams and passion and encouraging them to take the next step.

As we listened to Joy’s story we learned that her Hispanic husband had been laid off, that his 3 children often spend time at their home and the she was pregnant with their first baby.  Joy is a very articulate young woman and we could see that there was so much more there about her, then just her need for food. When Joy missed the bus to get her GED we helped her and in turn got invited to her graduation where she beamed with pride.

While Joy grew up on welfare, she was determined not to become another statistic. We encouraged her to go to college and pursue her dreams and helped with gas money at times. Various government agencies also saw her potential and helped her get enrolled.

We also invited Joy to be part of our Community Garden and she was so excited to be able to get fresh fruits and vegetables for the family.

During her time at the community garden she connected with the Loren & Barbara, the farmers who provided the land. They mentored her in various aspects: how to appreciate God’s creation and care for it, how and when to grow the plants, how to prepare and store them, how to use spices. During this time a lot of personal mentoring and encouraging took place.  Everybody enjoyed this growing friendship and learned from each other.

When Joy comes home from her weekly trips to the garden, she shares the fruit of her labor with her neighbors who in turn share some of their goods with her. Together they decided that they could have some vegetables in their own little apartment complex.

Joy heard about the Master Gardener Program and is planning to go through the training so that she can share with others what she has learned and give back to the community. She is dreaming and planning for a big community garden in Winton.

Over time she received other items through various agencies and groups (diapers, furniture, clothing) and she noted that many of her neighbors did not speak English and had a difficult time getting the help that they need. We started talking about starting a Spanish/English class. Some of us would learn Spanish and others English, building a bridge between the Hispanic and Anglo community.

During these tough economic times Joy and Jose are at times in need of help, but that does not hinder her from helping others in her community, building bridges between races and working with her neighbors to transform her apartment complex.  They share groceries and receipts, exchange clothing, help each other when in need and enjoy a growing community.

While it all started with the need for groceries it sure went much further than that!

Monika Grasley

Winton Community Pride Day

I have lived in Winton for many years and as a community member it always bothered me that the MAC (the local advisory body and representative to the County) seemed to be very inward focused. So, when I became an AmeriCorps worker I decided that I wanted to be part of the MAC and see how we can work together to see change happen in the community.

Last year Winton LifeLine Community Center sponsored a Fall Festival. I (Ernie) coordinated the event, we had Gateway Community Church from Merced provide games for the children, a young Christian artist from Merced provide music, and numerous service organizations came out for a wonderful event that drew the whole community together.

We were asked if we would have another fall event and having gone through various training from ABCD and AmeriCorps I realized that we should not be in charge of it again, so I referred it to the MAC to see if they want to sponsor the event this year.

Well it worked. We partnered with the Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) for the first Winton Community Pride Day.  Several of the board members jumped at the idea, one board member offered his community hall free of charge, one person took care of delegating various jobs to the members of the board and I ended up only with one task: to get community organizations involved.

I asked one of the local churches to provide games and craft projects for the children, a business provided the food, LifeLine gave out winter coats and through a grant was able to provide Food Vouchers to the local grocery store. Community organizations came out to show their services. Businesses provided door prizes.

Over 250 people showed up that day and enjoyed getting to know their community better, ate pizza and realized that they do care about the community!

Ernie Solis

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