living the faith
Church shares its human resources
by Donald E. Skinner
Francisco Leon was simply sharing his love of math when he signed on to help teach a class of middle schoolers last summer in Lowell, Massachusetts. An aerospace engineer, Leon is one of many volunteers who are part of the Jericho Road project, a pioneering social action program organized by members of the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts.
Leon showed the youth how computers were used to build aircraft. Afterward, two of them approached him in the hallway. “They asked, ‘We were wondering if we could ever get jobs working on airplanes––doing what you do?’” Leon said, “That just made my day. No, it made my summer, that they had made a connection with math that they hadn’t had before. I told them yes, if they studied they could do everything I showed them.”
Jericho Road, named after a sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., invites First Parish friends and members to use their professional skills to help nonprofit groups and small businesses in nearby Lowell. Concord and Lowell are only a few miles apart, but economically there is a much wider gap. Concord is an affluent suburb with many business professionals. Lowell is an urban center with many people who are struggling economically, including recent immigrants and refugees creating new lives for themselves.
Begun three years ago, Jericho Road really took off about a year ago when it hired Dan Holin—its first and only paid staff member—to be executive director. In 2002 about 300 people in the congregation of 800 filled out a skill survey, expressing their interest in the program. Since then Jericho Road has brought on two full-time volunteer staff, recruited 70 volunteers and received more than 70 requests for help from 35 organizations in Lowell. It has provided services valued at $125,000.
Jericho Road grew out of a movement within the congregation, says the Rev. Jenny Rankin, a First Parish minister. “People wanted a way to use their particular skills to make the world better. They were interested in social action, but traditional projects weren’t always the best use of their time.”
Jericho Road has four programs:
• Free professional services to nonprofits. One such project is providing a Cambodian social service agency in a fiscal crisis with free management consulting services.
• Business Executives Advising New Entrepreneurs (BEANE), which seeds and supports small businesses through long-term, one-on-one mentoring, walk-in consultations, and an educational curriculum.
• Pairing Concord expertise in educational, recreational, and other needs in Lowell. Congregation members like Leon serve as mentors to school children.
• An Internet-based “virtual warehouse” for used goods, still in the planning stage. Lowell nonprofits would post what they need, and congregation members will post what they have.
All of Jericho Road’s services, says Holin, address the causes of social injustice and give underserved people and the organizations that help them the tools to improve their lives. Jericho Road is also involved in what Holin describes as people-to-people projects. One is the Field of Dreams, aimed at reviving a dilapidated baseball field in Lowell.
The field, built in 1958 in the Acre neighborhood, serves 300 youth, but its bleachers are rotting and unsafe and there is no restroom or concession stand. Jericho Road is working with parents to design and build a concession stand to create profits to be used to improve the field.
Steve Lenox, a museum exhibit designer and First Parish member with computer skills, is helping prepare materials to help raise funds for improvements. “There is other social justice work I could do, but helping with the baseball field leverages what I’m best at.” Jericho Road has also brought in a contractor to investigate repairing the bleachers.
Hai Cheng is a member of the board of directors of the Cambodian Mutual Assis-tance Association of Greater Lowell, Inc. It provides citizenship classes and services for the elderly, teaches parenting skills to high school dropouts, and coordinates services for families who have children with mental retardation. Cheng was thrilled when a management consulting firm, Sherbrooke Partners, volunteered through Jericho Road to do a $30,000 strategic evaluation of the organization so it can determine if it is putting its resources in the right places.
“We needed to determine if there might be more appropriate ways we could serve our community,” said Cheng, “We are very fortunate that Jericho Road is helping us do this.”
Dan Shepard, his wife Lee Steppacher, and Carol Dwyer, all members of First Parish, took a group of at-risk Lowell boys white-water rafting last summer as part of a Jericho Road project.
“A lot of these kids have tough backgrounds,” said Jim Conlon, director of the ADAM (Awareness and Development of Adolescent Males) program of Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Lowell, which brought the youth to the river. He said some are in alternative schools because of behavior issues. Many of the youngsters are at risk for gangs, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse.
“The rafting really built up their confidence,” Conlon said. “Now they say they want to try something harder, and that’s just what we wanted to hear. An activity like this really pushes them in a positive direction. ”
Learning went both ways on the trip. There was lots of one-on-one conversation
on the river bank and in the boats. On the trip itself buckets of cold
river water directed at each other added to the fun—and the bonding.
“Everybody had a great experience, us and the kids,” said
Shepard. “We’re going to see if there might be another project
we can help them with.”