Help Multiplied

You can help homeless and other low income people learn how to earn an income even if they can’t find a job.  If you want to skip all the background stuff in the blog, go to

http://tinyurl.com/TOPwerxCampaign

If we reach our funding goal, we have cool rewards for everyone who pledges.  It’s a win-win-win situation.

We return you to the not-so-regularly-scheduled blog.

About ten years ago I had a conversation with a homeless man named John who told me he had just been turned down for another job.  He had been job hunting for two years after he finished serving his time on a felony charge.  It turns out that conviction was a life sentence that was keeping him from landing a job.  I remember he threw his hands up in the air and said, “Man, I can’t even get a job at McDonalds!”

John’s predicament is not unique.  My friend Kevin faces the same situation.  He served 5 years in prison on a bank robbery charge.  His prospects are bleak to say the least.  And so I developed a passion for finding a way to help people like John and Kevin earn an income even if they can’t find a job. It had to meet the following criteria:

  • It must be something that a person without much education can do
  • It must be something that is simple and can produce reliable income without a long learning curve.
  • It must be supported by a community of people who are already working the business successfully
  • It must pass the “Quick Test” of successfully producing income within 30 days.

It took over a decade of discovering what didn’t work, but I finally found it.  We call it TOPwerx.  It meets all of the criteria and passed the “Quick Test” with flying colors.

The business model is based on buying products to sell through online channels such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy.  We sold scores of products in 7 different market niches through 9 months of research and turned a healthy profit on everything we sold.

Now, we are seeking support to begin our training program with up to 5 students in the first year. We hope to expand the training in Washington, DC and throughout Virginia. TOPwerx is designed to be completely self-sustaining within two years.

 Project Details – Curriculum

The curriculum will be video-based and replicable. It will be divided into five phases.

Phase I: Get Your Head in the Game – students will have to demonstrate the right mindset in order to progress in the curriculum.  We focus on eliminating entitlement mentality, developing a can-do attitude and teaching our students to think like business owners, not employees.

Phase II: Your Tool Box – Students will receive basic training in computers and thorough training in the use of the smart phones and apps they will need to be successful.  In this phase, we plan to utilize youth volunteers as mentors to help students master the technology. Since this is all hands-on training, there will be no real development costs for it.

Phase III: Getting Started – Here we begin with the nuts and bolts of the business.  Students will learn what to sell, where to sell it, how to list their products, how to ship inventory and how to track sales and profits.

Phase IV: Advanced Sourcing and Selling Techniques – There are lots of ways to get products to sell profitably. Sorry, but these are trade secrets that will give our students an edge in the marketplace.  I think we’ll just keep them a secret

Phase V: Mind Your Own Business – The final phase will teach students how to manage their cash flow, keep accurate records, taxes, licenses, insurance and other paperwork related to their business.

We have obtained a license for a powerful, existing curriculum we will use for Phases III and IV.  Our students will also become part of a community of other people involved in this business, which will be critical for their success.

By the time they finish the course, they will have a successful business.  TOPwerx staff will provide support for students after they graduate to ensure their long-term success.

How You Can Help

Just click the above link to the TOPwerx Funding Campaign on StartSomeGood.com for details on how you can be a part of this movement.  We have a long way to go!  We can use all the pledges, prayers and shares we can get.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

 

Emotional Gas

Two churches were sharing the duties of the ministry trip for Teens Opposing Poverty on a cool Sunday afternoon.  One brought the hot dogs. The other brought the chili.

We served about 30-40 homeless people in McPherson Square, just a few blocks from the White House. There were no long lines, no rush.  They just kind of trickled in for food.  The atmosphere was relaxed. Our volunteers had lots of opportunities to connect with the people they served..

As we transitioned from mostly serving to mostly talking and visiting, David, Oliver and I stood between the chili and hot dog stations.  Oliver was bringing us up to date on his decision to propose to his girlfriend and told us how good he was feeling right now.  He suffers from a number of chronic health problems.

After some unrelated small talk, the discussion turned to household bills.  David shared the recent break he had gotten on his gas bill.  Oliver was lamenting that the gas company estimates his bill every other month and they always overcharge him. One month he will have a huge bill, the next month he will have a huge credit.

As they continued their conversation, a wave of emotion swept over me.

I have known both of these men for over 10 years. They both used to be homeless, trapped in the prisons of their addictions.  I watched how God used our friendship, relationships they formed with our volunteers and other influences to get their heads and hearts in the right place so they could endure the rigors of overcoming their homelessness.  It wasn’t an easy road for either of them.  There were setbacks too numerous to mention, but they persevered. They beat the streets.

And now they were talking about their gas bills.

I put my hands on their shoulders, looked at them, smiled and asked, “Ten years ago, could you have ever imagined you would be having this conversation right now?”

They they looked at me and at each other. In nearly perfect unison they smiled and said, “Never.”

Who would have ever thought someone could be grateful for a gas bill?

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

 

And Now for Something a Little Different

The sunlight was as cold and barren as the naked trees in Franklin Square, just a few blocks from the White House. It seemed to offer no respite from the chilly breeze that blew through the park.  John and Walter stood with cups of hot chili in their hands and their collars turned up to keep their necks warm.

 We engaged in small talk for a while.  Both men answered questions and offered opinions between bites of chili and a never-ceasing stream of thank-yous.  Walter talked excitedly about starting a new job after more than two years of searching. 

 John fell silent as Walter spoke.  He cast his eyes into his cup of chili like he was looking for a bit of cracker floating in it.  After a few minutes, John began to share his struggle to find a job.  As the frustration in his voice grew, he stopped eating the chili and spread his arms in a gesture of desperation.

 “No matter where I go, no matter where I apply, I can’t get a job! I’ve filled in over 200 applications and still nothing,” he lamented.  “Because I have a prison record, I can’t even get a job at McDonalds! I served my time.  I paid my debt to society.  Why can’t I get a break?”

 That conversation took place in 1999 during a strong economy.  Jobs were plentiful, but not for John.  His words have haunted me ever since.

 How many people languish in poverty because, no matter how hard they try, they can’t get a job?  Prison record, lack of education, lack of job skills, mental illness and other obstacles create dim prospects for tens of thousands of poor people. Many have marketable skills and talents, but a job is still out of reach for them. 

 That conversation spurred me to look for a way that someone in John’s shoes can learn how to earn an income regardless of their background or mental state.

 Recently, I discovered eBay Giving Works, the nonprofit arm of the giant online auction.  I also began researching Etsy, a marketing system for arts and crafts, the Amazon Marketplace, Fulfillment by Amazon, and other Internet-based commerce platforms.  I believe these methods can provide additional support for TOP and help homeless and other poor people we serve step up the ladder to a better life.  

 We have named this effort TOPwerx. We are launching it right now.  In the first stage, our staff will learn the techniques of selling online. Our initial approach will be sort of an online thrift store, except we won’t sell everything through one site.  We’ll use whatever platform best suits a product. 

As we learn the ins-and-outs of online commerce, we will develop a training program.  Once a core curriculum is in place, we plan to help 2 – 3 clients through a pilot program.  During this stage we will fine tune the system and make careful notes on outcomes.  We plan to bring in youth volunteers wherever we can during the process, especially when we teach computer skills. Finally, we will seek grants to expand so we can serve more people and increase support for TOP at the same time.

 How You Can Help

We are looking for donated items to sell.  Games, toys, tools, horse supplies, electronics, textbooks, reference books, shoes, clothing and anything else you can imagine selling on eBay.  We can arrange pickup in Northern Virginia, the Northern Shenandoah Valley and DC.  If you are somewhere else in the region contact us.  Our goal is to find a repository for donated items in every city where we work.

We are also looking for people who have experience selling on eBay, Half.com, Etsy.com, Amazon Marketplace or Fulfillment by Amazon to help shorten the learning curve for us.

 Please pray that TOPwerx will become an opportunity for those who have little hope in the job market and that it will help TOP expand its ministry with “the least of these.”

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.teensopposingpoverty.org

A Lesson in Thankfulness

I’ll never forget the blizzard of 1996.  At least I think it was ’96.  Anyway, the snow was approaching and I had to get to Washington, D.C.  to keep a promise to my homeless friend Jakob.  He said his gout was acting up and asked for some aspirin.

I arrived at dusk. The street lights from Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House cast an eerie glow on the bench at Lafayette Square where he planned to sleep during the blizzard.

“Are you going to be OK?  This is supposed to be a big storm, you know.”  I tried to make my tone of voice sound ominous and urgent.

“I’ll be fine,” he assured me.

I guess my ominous tone wasn’t very ominous.

“I have been blessed with a stack of blankets and two tarps, I have lots of warm clothes on and I just had dinner.  I have everything I need.”

We stood for a while in the glare of lights from the home of the President of the United States. The air felt like the snow would start any second. After a few more words, I said goodbye, got into my truck, turned the heater on and drove home. That night and all the next day I sat in front of a warm fire, sipped hot chocolate and looked out the window as 40 inches of snow piled up outside.

As I was leaving, Jakob crawled under his tarp and between his many layers of blankets on the bench.  He awoke the next morning thinking somebody was sitting on him.  It was just the snow.  He had been warm and slept soundly through the night.

The homeless people we work with through TOP are a grateful bunch.  For many of them, if they have clothes on their backs, food in their bellies and some way to stay warm through the night they have enough. Everything else is a treat and a blessing.  You can’t believe the “thank you’s” we get just for handing out underwear!

So the next time you are tempted to complain about the hassles and aggravations of life, think about Jakob (he’s still on the streets) and give thanks for your underwear.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

Heart, Mind and Soul Part 3: William’s Story From Served to Servant

This is the third in a series of posts about where the solutions to homelessness truly begin.  They are not in the opportunities, training or services offered to homeless people.  They are in the hearts, minds and souls of the homeless themselves. The longer I spend in ministry with these amazing people, the more I learn of the importance of attitude and that nothing else we do to address their challenges will work if their hearts, minds and souls are not in the right place.

To read the first two installments, click on the links:

http://teensopposingpoverty.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/heart-mind-and-soul-part-1-jeffs-story/

http://teensopposingpoverty.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/heart-mind-and-soul-part-2-davids-story-believe/

His street name was “Black”.  He was homeless for over 12 years.  Drugs and alcohol were his life, but on Sunday afternoons when the youth volunteers from Teens Opposing Poverty (TOP) came to serve, he was always straight and sober.  For years, I just made small talk with him.  He spent most of his time talking with the teens.  Several of them became friends with him.  It was a few years before I found out his real name was William.

Then in 1995 something terrible happened.  William almost lost his life in a fire.  As he lay half-conscious on a hospital gurney, he watched his cousin die.  That horror was followed by 6 months of skin grafts and the loss of his left leg. He had a breathing tube stuck down his throat for so long that it paralyzed half his vocal cords.

After he got out of the hospital, William spent nearly three more years on the street until he was able to secure Social Security Disability.  It was during these three years that he went from being someone we served to one of my best friends.  He was, and still is, one of the most humble people I know, but he also began speaking with the deserved authority of someone who daily had to live with pain that most of us could not imagine.

When he spoke to our volunteers, William wielded his testimony like a knife cutting into our complacent hearts. He helped us to see his struggles and shared with us his belief that God saved him for a reason. In telling his story, he let the youth know that they were here for a reason, too, and that God can use even the bad things in our lives for good.

I’ll never forget the day we helped him get into his first apartment.  He stepped inside and closed the door, turning the lock several times.  Then he flipped the light switch on and off and finally looked up at the ceiling.  “Look,” he said, “No stars.” He hasn’t been homeless in more than 13 years since then.  But unlike many who get off the street, William kept going back and keeping in touch with the people he used to live with.  Little did I know what a valuable asset he would become to TOP because of that.

In the weeks and months that followed, William met us on every homeless ministry trip we took.  He was great with the teens, taking the shy ones under his wing until they were comfortable enough to start talking to the people we served.

As his confidence grew, he offered suggestions on things we could do differently, other sites where we could serve and better ways to connect with our homeless friends.  I wasn’t the only one who recognized William’s growth and willingness to assume responsibility and assert authority.  The teens did, too, and started turning to him when they had questions.

When TOP was able to hire staff, William became the coordinator of our homeless ministry in Washington, DC.  Now he develops new Street Ministry Outreaches and shares his powerful testimony with churches and other groups.  He went from being one of the homeless guys to a ministry professional.

I haven’t just seen this scenario play out in William’s case.  Giving those we serve a chance to become servants is a crucial part of our ministry.  Everyone has gifts to give, talents to use and faith to share.   When people have an opportunity to contribute, they hold their heads a little higher.  They remember that they can make a difference.

We must remember that we are in ministry WITH the poor, not to them.   Let’s not get so wrapped up in giving to others that we fail to give ourselves a chance to receive.  Understanding this one simple principle can bring out the best in all of us.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

Heart, Mind and Soul Part 2: David’s Story – Believe

This is the second in a series of posts about where the solutions to homelessness truly begin.  They are not in the opportunities, training or services offered to homeless people.  They are in the hearts, minds and souls of the homeless themselves. The longer I spend in ministry with these amazing people, the more I learn of the importance of attitude and that nothing else we do to address their challenges will work if their hearts, minds and souls are not in the right place.

To read the first installment, click on the link: http://teensopposingpoverty.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/heart-mind-and-soul-part-1-jeffs-story/

The small group of middle-school girls laughed as they stood next to the imposing statue of Commodore John Barry in Franklin Square.  They had come to Washington, DC to serve homeless people, not expecting the entertaining encounter with David.  He was funny, engaging and held them in rapt attention.

Little did I know at the time that the forming friendship between this homeless man and group of girls would change his life.  David was trapped in the downward spiral of alcohol and crack cocaine addiction, but he was always straight on the Sundays we came to town.  I was glad he was there because he was so good with the young volunteers of Teens Opposing Poverty.

Over a dozen youth groups were involved in our DC ministry at the time, but David connected in a special way with this group of middle-school girls who served at the park every other month.  Over time, he began to see them as his “little sisters.”   In between the teasing and laughing, they built him up and made him feel special.   Just before he entered a rehab program, they encouraged him and told him that he could beat his addictions.

In other words, they believed in him.

David held tightly to their belief because he couldn’t yet believe in himself.  In late 2004 he entered a rehab program.  It wasn’t the first time, so he had little expectation of any lasting change.  After he completed the program, he got a job doing building maintenance.  I didn’t see him for several months.  The girls asked about him, and I told them that I assumed he was working.

When I saw David again in the spring I asked him how the job was going.

“I lost it,” he said. “I fell off the wagon and missed too much work.  But don’t tell the girls!  I’m clean again and I’m going to do my best to stay that way.”

Since then, David has experienced setbacks that would knock the most stalwart warrior off his horse, but he kept pushing.  He never gave up.  Although his self-confidence was shaky at times, he made a turn in his life.  Someone believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself.  His self-talk went from “why bother” to “it’s worth a shot” to “I can do this” all because he bought into the words of encouragement from some girls still too young to drive.

What they did for David cost nothing but their time, but it was one of the most precious gifts he ever received.

David Williams is now the Director of Teens Opposing Poverty’s Washington, DC homeless outreach.  He believes he can make a difference in this world because someone believed in him.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings

Executive Director

www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

Heart, Mind and Soul – Part 1: Jeff’s Story

This is the first in a series of posts about where the solutions to homelessness truly begin.  They are not in the opportunities, training or services offered to homeless people.  They are in the hearts, minds and souls of the homeless themselves. The longer I spend in ministry with these amazing people, the more I learn of the importance of attitude and that nothing else we do to address their challenges will work if their hearts, minds and souls are not in the right place.

The young man was frustrated, scared and angry.  We’ll call him Jeff. His eyes were fixed on mine in a steady gaze as he recounted his recent trials.  He had made mistakes and served time for them.  Now he was on parole.  Despite diligently looking for a steady job, work was inconsistent. For the most part, he was getting by, but sometimes had some slow weeks. 

Jeff’s inconsistent pay made it difficult to get a place of his own.  He had been living with his mother, paying rent, until she moved to a new apartment.  For reasons he didn’t explain, he couldn’t move to the new place with his mother, but she had arranged for him to keep the apartment she had left for a few more weeks – or so he thought. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.  While he thought he had three weeks left in the apartment, he came home two nights before to find all of his stuff in the hallway of the building.  After scrounging to find a place to put his stuff, he spent a couple of chilly nights on the street.  Needless to say he didn’t get much sleep, which didn’t help his mood.

Now he was worried that he had no address, which is required when you’re on parole.  Fortunately he had a good parole officer who knew he was trying to do things right and would cut him some slack.  He could get by a few days with no address and avoid a return trip to jail.

I named a couple of agencies Jeff could turn to.  He had already been to them and said they told him he would have to wait over a year to get a place under their affordable housing programs. He named several other agencies in the city he had turned to, but none could help him find a room to rent, much less an affordable apartment.  A mental health agency spent lots of time asking him about his childhood and his relationship with his parents.  He answered all their questions but didn’t feel he got any real help from them

“How is analyzing my childhood going to put a roof over my head?”  he asked as he stood up from the bench and paced in agitation.  “I’m trying.  I’m trying hard, and it seems every time I turn around, something else bad happens.”

Jeff’s story is typical of what we hear on the street.  Everyone I know who has made it off the street can’t count how many times they were shot down before they finally had success.  Sometimes they knocked themselves down by pushing their self-destruct buttons, but often circumstances beyond their control sent them back to the streets.

After 25 years of hearing stories of setbacks and successes, I have discovered two virtues that lie at the core of people who make it off the streets: perseverance and focus. Every homeless person I know who found housing never stopped trying and focused on that goal like a laser beam.  Even though they got knocked down over and over again, they picked themselves up and kept pressing forward.  They knew where they wanted to be, and they resolved to do whatever it took, whether it was work a job they hated, stay on the street longer to save money or continue to take advantage of free food, clothes and other services in order to attain their goal of a roof over their heads.

These virtues come from God or from within ourselves.  We can’t magically transplant perseverance and focus into somebody, but there are things we can do to help people discover them.

How Long Will You Hide?

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Psalm 13:1 (NIV)

David, the King of Israel and psalmist,  penned these words about 3,000 years ago, but some things never change. If you live long enough, chances are you will go through at least one time of trouble that will leave you feeling the same way.

You know what it’s like, don’t you? You feel stuck in a hole with no way out. It beats you down. It takes a toll on your mind, body and soul. You feel overwhelmed, frustrated, drained, desperate and angry all at the same time.

It’s awful.

For most of us this pain, and the situation that causes it, will pass. But others get no reprieve.  Broken relationships, addiction, chronic sickness, long-term unemployment and poverty can drive people into the dark pit of despair for a lifetime.

How do they respond? They adapt. Their tough situation in life becomes the “new normal” and they learn how to live in their dark place. They try and fail to “get over the hump” so often that they give up. Once they reach this state of mind, any efforts they make to improve their lives are tainted by the expectation that they will fail again. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can’t count how many homeless people I have worked with over the last 25 years who have given up trying to get out of their situations. They have embraced the belief that God has hidden His face from them and will forget them forever. For them, it takes a bonfire instead of a spark to light the fire of hope.

And yet that fire can still be lit, even in the heart of someone who has been homeless for 10, 20 or 30 years. I have had the unspeakable joy of seeing it happen.

That is where you and I come in. We can light the fire through friendship, exploring possibilities, re-igniting dreams and showing them that maybe- just maybe- God hasn’t forgotten them after all.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

http://www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org

Straighten Up

April 4, 2012

Martin Luther King was assassinated on this day in 1968 when I was 12 years old. There was a lot I didn’t understand about racial tensions back then. But when cities burst into riots in the days that followed, I knew enough to be saddened. I knew Dr. King would have mourned that betrayal of his commitment to nonviolence. Although I was young, I clearly remember singer James Brown on the radio in Washington, DC trying to find words that might pour some cooling water on the powder keg that was igniting in the nation’s capital.

The day before he was killed, Dr. King spoke to Memphis sanitation workers who were trying to form a union. “I’ve been to the mountaintop!” he exclaimed. “Mine eyes have seen glory of the coming of the Lord!” were the last words he spoke to an audience. I heard these words and was made aware of their timing when I was searching for my own faith. I marveled at their prophetic power, and it helped me to see a God who was present with us, who could prepare our hearts, minds and souls for things we could not foresee.

Today, I heard another line from that speech that resonated with me: “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they’re going somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.”

As I pondered these words of Dr. King, images of the downtrodden people I have known flashed in my mind’s eye. It renewed my passion and focus in ministry and helped me see one thing that the church can help poor and oppressed people accomplish better than anybody else.

We can help people “straighten their backs up.”

We can help them stand on the shoulders of Jesus. Although His back was bent beneath the weight of the cross and our sins, He is strong enough to lift us up.

We can let them know that somebody believes in them and that they are precious, not only in God’s sight, but in ours. Our acceptance of them as humans of equal value helps them stand straighter and more boldly confront the challenges set before them.

It’s not as easy to see the results of this gift as it is to see somebody eat the food we hand out, but it is far more important. Even if their situation in the world never changes, they will change. Even if they remain on the streets, they will “go somewhere” because they recapture that key element of humanity that is too often torn away from them. The food is important for the moment. Helping people “straighten their backs up” is for a lifetime and for eternity.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings
Executive Director
www.TeensOpposingPoverty.org