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Fostering change – Neighborhood matchmaker

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A small network of faith-based nonprofits has emerged to serve children and families in a handful of low-income, mainly black neighborhoods just northeast of uptown Charlotte.

The three groups were created by Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church, which was formed in 1947 to serve the then-white Piedmont Courts public housing project.

“There has to be a matchmaker, a go-between,” says Charlie Summers, the church’s former pastor and now senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va.

The congregation 400 members, up from its initial 35, works for social change through community programs.

Just before Summers became pastor in 1987, for example, the church opened a preschool program for 12 youngsters. Enrollment at the Seigle Avenue Preschool Cooperative, which is free and requires parents to get involved, now totals 40 children.

The preschool aims both to help parents help their children learn – and to help parents themselves learn and grow.

“When parents come in, we assess where they are in their education and employment, and help them develop plans to become self-sufficient,” says Judy Carter, the preschool’s executive director.

The school works hand in hand with two other nonprofits the church created — Seigle Avenue Partners, formed in 1999 to provide out-of-school programs for children in kindergarten through eighth grade, and Jacob’s Ladder Job Center, formed in 1998 to help people find jobs.

“We’re reaching the whole family,” says Clarence “C.J.” Johnson, executive director of the job center, which serves 25 people a month.

The out-of-school program, which serves 60 youngsters and includes after-school and summer programs, also is free, requires parent involvement and serves both children and parents.

“The parents of our kids need people to relate to them about their own needs and not just about their kids’ needs,” says Mary Nell McPherson, the program’s executive director.

In fact, says McPherson, a former director of operations for Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte, helping families learn is key to strengthening the community.

“Decent housing is critical for people in poverty,” she says, “but people’s lives don’t really change until we do something about education.”

Working with schools that serve neighborhood children, the out-of-school program helps involve parents in the schools, teaches parenting and other skills – and hopes to offer other services like adult education and a medical or dental clinic.

The preschool and out-of-school programs are housed in the Hope Building, financed through a $2 million fund drive supported by Myers Park Presbyterian Church, foundations and businesses.

The three nonprofits depend on foundation and church support – including $152,000 from the Foundation for the Carolinas for the out-of-school program — and plan to work together more closely to raise money.

The church, says Summers, the former pastor, is “an excellent example of a grassroots organization making the connections between those who want to help and those who need help.”

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