From the Ground Up

Central Dallas Ministries helps the poor find their own bootstraps

Fifteen years ago, Larry James was unknown in Dallas political circles. His name didn't appear regularly in the paper, the mayor didn't have his phone number, and he certainly didn't dine with presidential hopefuls, as he one day would.

If he was known for anything, it was the AIDS ministry work he had done as a Richardson preacher. Considering that he headed an Evangelical congregation, this made him something of a radical.

In spring 1994, James was asked to run Central Dallas Ministries, a small nonprofit that maintained a food pantry on Haskell Avenue, not far from the Baylor Medical Center. For the first year or so, James more or less ran the pantry by himself—buying the food, stocking the shelves, finding the volunteers, most of whom came from suburban churches.

One morning, three Hispanic women came into the pantry looking for help. Because they spoke little English, James had difficulty understanding exactly what they needed. Then he noticed a woman leaving the pantry who happened to be bilingual. James asked her if she could translate for him.

The woman, Josefina Ortiz, was more than happy to help. When she was finished, she told James she could come back the next day if he needed more help. Later that day, James had a small epiphany.

"I realized I had been going about it all wrong," he recently said. "I was relying on people from the outside to help run the food pantry, when I had all the resources I needed to run it right there in the neighborhood."

Ortiz came back the next day, and the day after that, for the next nine years. She also changed the way Central Dallas Ministries ran its food pantry. Today, when anyone comes into the pantry asking for help, they are also asked when they can volunteer to work there.

Had it not been for that experience, James might still be at the pantry stacking corn on the shelves, says Jeremy Gregg, CDM's director of development. "It freed up Larry to focus on the 'next steps' of the organization," Gregg says.

Today, CDM is one of the largest nonprofits in the city that helps with problems related to poverty. It has nearly 100 employees and a 2007 budget of $7.2 million.

James has also become one of the city's most influential advocates for the poor. This year, CDM will begin renovating a 15-story building in downtown Dallas that will eventually house 150 low-income and homeless residents. And in December, he quietly worked behind the scenes to save the job of Dallas Housing Authority chief Ann Lott, who was nearly ousted from her post because she had resisted the sale of Little Mexico, a public housing complex that sits on prime real estate near downtown that is desired by developers.

But where James' influence is most evident is in the blocks surrounding the food pantry, where CDM runs a computer lab, a law firm and a health clinic, all of which serve the poor in the surrounding neighborhoods. CDM also runs more than a dozen programs in the area—from a diabetes education class that mostly serves undocumented Hispanics, to an after-school academy at Turner Courts, a public housing project in South Dallas. Each program was created as a response to a poverty-related problem CDM was not yet addressing. And each is guided by a philosophy that has been with James since that day in the food pantry 13 years ago. Where possible, the programs are run by the people they are intended to serve.

"Of the people working for us right now, probably 30 percent were hired right out of the neighborhood where we're working," James says.

The idea, he says, is to restore hope and dignity instead of taking it away, to move away from the traditional paternalistic approach to charity and instead treat people like equals. And when you do that, he says, people rise to the occasion and solve their own problems.

Perhaps there is no better evidence of this than at Turner Courts, where CDM runs an after-school program. The housing project has the reputation of being one of the worst in the city, but the after-school academy is helping to change the area, residents say.

Take Sylvia Harris for example. When Harris came to Turner Courts, she had been nearly homeless for more than a year. She and her children had stayed off and on with her parents, in hotels, and for a short time, in Harris' car.

Like many mothers who live at Turner Courts, Harris never let her children play outside, fearing it was too dangerous. Then one day while paying her rent, she says she saw a sign advertising the CDM after-school academy.

Harris paid the $5 monthly fee to enroll her two children, and before long she was asked to help run the program.

Harris says it's a program unlike any other she's aware of. Through partnerships with groups such as the South Dallas Culture Center and the Foundation for Community Empowerment, kids who participate are able to enter chess tournaments, play golf or take ballet classes. These are all things Harris says she previously would have thought too expensive for her children to participate in.

Harris says the after-school program has dramatically changed her life for the better. Her kids are now aware of a world of possibilities beyond Turner Courts, she says. But more important, her participation in the program has restored her faith in herself.

"For somebody to come to the projects and offer me a job, I can't explain it, but it changed my life. It gave me hope," she says.

Success stories such as this one are what keep him going, James says. And while he is optimistic about the small changes his organization has made in the poorest parts of the city, he says there is much work to do. His dream, he says, is to change an entire neighborhood—say 20 or 30 blocks—from the ground up. He has his eye on Bexar Street, which is lined with boarded-up houses, graffiti-covered shops and liquor store after liquor store.

Changing a place such as Bexar Street will require more than the resources of CDM, James says, regardless of the political connections he has built up over the past 13 years. It will require the cooperation of the entire city. And that won't happen until Dallas residents change the way they think about the poor, James says.

"When you get into the lives of people, you see that everyone's the same," he says. "And the differences are mediated largely by circumstances beyond their control, and often those circumstances are institutional and relate to our policies and how we have things set up.

"The people who live in these neighborhoods have all the capabilities to turn their communities around. They just need a little bit of help."

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