By Karen Campbell, UBA Guest Editor
When Hurricane Ike swept into the Houston area, the wind and rain caused great devastation. But it also played a role in a "perfect storm" of new learning, creativity, and opportunity at the Mission Centers of Houston (MCH), resulting in new directions for the almost 50-year-old ministries.
"We rallied the troops when we were asked by the Red Cross to serve as a food distribution site for the aftermath of the hurricane," said Ginger Smith, Mission Centers executive director. "But when they pulled in, for the most part, our volunteers and staff stood aside and watched as they served 11,000 meals in seven days all with just a few Red Cross volunteers and that truck. Finally, one of our staff said, 'It's amazing ... but you know, it's just a taqueria.'"
That culturally astute observation - the area surrounding the Gano Center where the Red Cross food efforts were taking place is almost 59% Hispanic - prompted the staff to think outside the traditional food and clothing distribution and youth/senior adult ministries of the MCH. As a result, new strategies emerged that the staff deemed as "Dream Big." Smith began to tout the idea that a "taqueria" or food truck would be a way to serve the community through inexpensive food options, generate income for the non-profit MCH ministries, and provide a means for individuals - particularly women - to obtain employment experience and some income as well.
She mentioned the dream at The Get Together, a group of business people who meet once a month with selected partner ministries to identify needs that can be met through the resources and networks of those gathered. Buddy Ellisor, a member at Champion Forest, responded. He knew Northland Christian School wanted to sell their mobile concession stand and invest in a more permanent facility. Soon, the trailer was delivered.
However, Smith's plate was already full and transforming a concession stand into a mobile food unit in compliance with the strict regulations of the City of Houston proved to be a daunting task. Plus, the home missionary of 14 years, eight of those in Houston directing the MCH, was in the midst of other Dream Big plans. She was transitioning from a staff of primarily retired, dedicated volunteers to a paid staff --mostly fresh from college -- who had the time to move out into the community with offers of free yard care for senior adults and community service projects with youth.
She was also discovering that while the various ministry programs of the three locations comprising the MCH were reaching more than 80,000 people annually, few were addressing the much-needed economic transformation out of poverty.
"We are feeding the grandchildren of the people we were feeding years ago. We are providing clothes to those same families. But in our effort to help, sometimes what we do fixes the immediate problem but hurts the long-term solution. In doing acts of kindness, we're teaching 'we will do for you, you have no investment in this.'
"Our effort to help is not exactly the model Jesus gave us. Self-sufficient people don't receive all the time," said Smith.
The Dream Big concepts were expanded further when Smith attended the Christian Community Development Association in September 2010. The four-day conference in Chicago drew estimates of more than 4,000 people, most involved in urban ministry.
"That many people there were doing ministry similar to what I was doing was encouraging," noted Smith. "In the Baptist world, I go and speak as the expert. In Chicago, I was the amateur in the room."
The subject matter covered several topics crucial to realizing the next steps of Dream Big. Smith discovered others working with empowerment programs to raise up leaders from within the community rather than send people in to rescue the community. Examples included a t-shirt company with t-shirts designed and sold by teens and an employment program entitled "Empowering Youth to Make Wise Decisions about Life and Money."
Smith said the emphasis for many groups using social enterprises and educational outreach in impoverished communities is, "We want you to get an education -- not so that you can get out of here but for you to come back and invest in the community."
One result of the learning Smith received will be a new approach at the Souled Out Camps MCH conducts at Trinity Pines with neighborhood preteens and teens. A t-shirt design competition among the many graffiti artists in the community will allow the winner to see his/her winning design printed as well as to be mentored by a professional graphic artist as the design goes from idea to reality.
Once the taqueria/mobile food truck is operational, Smith hopes to see other social enterprises created. Among the possibilities are photography and art produced by youth and sold in galleries and a cooperative for printing and producing t-shirts designed by youth.
But first, the truck must be refurbished. Already in excellent condition, the 28 ft. trailer needs a griddle and vent hood installed as well as a thorough inspection by an electrician and plumber. Recognizing the limits on her time, Smith hired a project manager for the transformation and the creation of the curriculum that will help teach best practices to the future employees. After acquiring the specific requirements for food trucks to receive permits of operation, the project manager turned to collecting estimates for the costs and completing a business plan.
While MCH is supported by individuals, churches, and 2% of the unrestricted funds from UBA, new ways to fund the various ministries are always desired. Smith is pleased that the establishment of the taqueria will channel some funds back into the MCH. She's even happier that the food unit could provide much needed additional income to neighborhood families.
"Many of the women living around our Centers are expected to be home before their husbands leave for work and when they return at the end of the day," explained Smith. "Such limitations on the time they can give to another job prove, at times, to be detrimental. We want to set up the truck so that serving hours are for breakfast and lunch and will allow the women to be home before 3 p.m. Ultimately, we want to help them develop a job skill, learn best business practices and to do it all in a culturally sensitive manner."
Contractors, plumbers, electricians and anyone with expertise in food services are encouraged to contact Smith if they have time to donate for the establishment of the food truck. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 713-227-0304 ext. 104. A small team will be developed to move the truck from dream to reality.
For other MCH needs visit www.missioncenters.org. Upcoming big events include Noche Buena, an effort to provide 1,000 meals to 1,000 families during the holidays; Feed 365, a commitment from churches and organizations to lead a food drive during each month of 2011; and the Christmas Store, where individuals previously served by the Mission Centers will be encouraged to "shop" among donated Christmas gifts for their children.
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