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Preparing for work – Faith-based change

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By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A businessman’s divinity studies served as the blueprint for a faith-based Greensboro nonprofit that builds community partnerships to help people move from welfare to work.

Eighty-nine people – mainly single black mothers – have graduated from the three-year-old jobs program offered by the Welfare Reform Liaison Project in partnership with Guilford Technical Community College. Eight in 10 graduates hold jobs that on average pay $8 an hour.

The group, which was created by Mount Zion Baptist Church, also has teamed up with the United Way of Greater Greensboro and distributed to more than 150 local agencies $31 million in new merchandise donated to Gifts In Kind International.

Now, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project is being honored by the N.C. Center for Nonprofits as one of three winners of its 2001 Nonprofit Sector Steward Award.

“We are all part of the community and we have to work together to address the needs facing all of us,” says the Rev. Odell Cleveland, the project’s founder and executive director.

The project is rooted in Cleveland’s experience. Now 41, he was the second of four children raised in public housing in Charleston, S.C., by his divorced mother, who worked in a shirt factory, earned her graduate equivalency degree at night and suffered a massive stroke at the age of 25.

“We all have dreams and ideas of how our lives are going to turn out,” he says. “But in everyday living, things go wrong from time to time.”

His mother and all her children eventually earned college degrees, he said, because of the “extended family of the black community in the late 60s, early 70s, where the whole community looked out for the child.”

In 1997, after 18 years of negotiating logistics and materials-handling contracts for the Greensboro terminal of Atlanta-based Saia Transportation Co., Cleveland earned a master’s degree in divinity from Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury.

His thesis focused on the response the black church should take to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and proposed creating faith-based community partnerships to provide job training and assistance for people forced off the welfare rolls.

He showed the thesis to George W. Brooks, senior pastor at his church, Mount Zion. After asking if Cleveland could do what he was proposing, Brooks hired him as associate pastor.

The project runs an 11-week program with Guilford Tech that prepares people for distribution-industry jobs, gives them on-the-job training in a warehouse it leases to distribute products donated through Gifts In Kind and the United Way, helps them find jobs and gives them job counseling for 18 months.

Cleveland, who now aims to enroll more fathers in the program, said its goal is not to push religion but to tap the strengths of religious people.

“People of faith can see what people can become,” he says.

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