Features

From getting to (thanks)getting

Poverty | Award-winning charities turn aid recipients into grateful benefactors

Issue: "Trailer park blues," Nov. 26, 2005

Like most kids, Shawn Yinger, 22, grew up watching television. Unlike them, he had a crack-addicted mom who'd pawn the family's set around the middle of every month for food and rent money. "It made me feel lesser to everybody else, because a lot of other people in 'hood, you know, go through struggles. But they had their TV all month," Shawn remembers with a shrug.

Shawn is one of many teens in the tough Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, whose life prospects have brightened through Central Ohio Youth for Christ's City Life program. The initiative pairs poor kids with mentors and engages them in a variety of discipleship and vocational programs. Recently, City Life won first prize in the 10-state "Partners in Transformation" awards program sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, besting 101 other Ohio applicants.

Nine faith-based groups from other states also received $5,000 cash grants for effectively partnering with non-religious organizations. The winning programs from among 475 entries move homeless families into stable housing, keep troubled kids in school, help ex-offenders to walk the straight and narrow, mentor refugee families, and train the chronically unemployed for work.

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Shawn's mentor Jack Strack admits that at first he was pessimistic: "Shawn was hardly able to sit and listen to five minutes of biblical instruction. He and his buddies would just laugh and joke and at times it seemed like this was just never gonna work." But over the years, Shawn cultivated a relationship with Christ and a desire to influence others' lives. At 16, he moved in with his mentors. Today, as he works on his GED, he is one of three "Volunteers in Training" with Youth for Christ (YFC). "A lot of people do the suit and collar thing," Shawn explains. "I still want to have baggy jeans and have people say, 'That's good to see this guy stayed right here in the 'hood and didn't leave; that he's willing to go through the struggle to help spread the Word for less fortunate kids.'"

Because of Shawn's influence, Mo Smith, 21, joined City Life and now works as a paid intern with the ministry. Mo could relate to Shawn's story: When Mo was 2 his dad died of a drug overdose, and his mom has long been addicted to crack. As a sophomore, Mo came to realize that his job at Long John Silver's was mainly just supporting his mom's drug habit. With help from mentors Brian and Lisa Gintz, Mo extracted himself from the unhealthy relationship and completed high school-a noteworthy achievement in Franklinton, where nearly 60 percent of students fail to graduate. Today, Mo, Shawn, and other City Life grads eat at least weekly with the Gintz family. Lisa explains that this affords many "teaching moments" in which she and her husband can tutor the youth in life skills such as setting boundaries and managing money: "We want these kids to be thriving to the point of philanthropy, to giving something back."

Such a goal sets apart deeply transformational programs from those that provide temporary Band-Aids but encourage little permanent change. YFC Executive Director Scott Arnold uses an evaluation grid for tracking individual progress in the areas of relationships, finances, job skills, and "civic literacy." His ambition isn't just "fixing" kids, but moving them from getting to giving.

That's also the desire of another winner, Second Genesis. The Little Rock--based faith-based organization's intensive, residential program works with parole officers to help Arkansas women with prison pasts, such as Melissa Shireman, stay out of jail for good. During previous paroles Ms. Shireman, 43, had moved back in with her mother in her "itty bitty" hometown of Beebe, Ark. But in 2001 her mom drew a line: Knowing her daughter was likely to fall right back into old associations and patterns, she told her to look elsewhere for housing.

Hurt, but sensing deep down that her mother was right, Ms. Shireman applied for an interview with Cynthia Martin, then the director of Second Genesis. The applicant recalls, "She looked me in the eye and I looked her in the eye and I totally poured my heart out. I was so tired of doing the same old thing and getting the same result. And she told me that they could help me with new life skills, and that they'd give me that opportunity if I honestly wanted to change my life." Ms. Shireman moved into a house with six other women, and for the next three months she worked 30 hours a week at Chik-Fil-A, abided by a 5:30 p.m. curfew, shared chores with her housemates, and participated in evening classes most weeknights.

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