81 years of responsive service at Open Door Community HouseBy Rachel Letcher | June 2016
In 1935, Open Door Community House began providing children's programming in the basement of Hamp Stevens Church, later moving to a small cottage out back to provide day care for working mothers. For nearly a century, Open Door has continued growing to meet the needs of families in their Columbus community.
Kim Jenkins joined the organization in 2000 as program director, becoming executive director in 2003. In her 16 years at Open Door, Jenkins has seen Columbus residents and officials join them in reaching out to impoverished families with a variety of services and supports. She spoke with us over the phone from their offices, located less than a block from the Chattahoochee River.
How has the perception of poverty in Columbus changed over the years?
We have had different ministries over the years, but everything we do helps individuals find a way to end poverty for themselves and for their families. We are now more focused on long-term solutions to poverty, instead of being a hand-out type program. We believe in strengthening skills and education, while connecting through relationships and helping people put needed resources in place.
One exciting initiative we’ve led, which has seen enormous success, is Circles in Columbus. Based on a national model, Columbus was the second city in Georgia to bring in the Circles program. We have been so excited to see the difference it’s making not only in people’s lives, but also in the community—especially in how the community talks about poverty.
As we continue to grow the Circles initiative, we are really starting to see people move beyond poverty by connecting them with folks who know about job opportunities and other community resources. Those who have been in the program for 18 months or longer have an over 7,000 percent increase in assets, a lot of which is based on the relationships they’ve built and the methods they’ve learned for connecting to resources differently. Two women who participated as Circles leaders, formerly living in poverty, are now Circles volunteers, serving as allies to other participants and leaders.
For so many people living in poverty, their only contacts are other folks living in poverty. It is very helpful for these families just to realize that there are people in the community who care, and who will stand beside them as they work on their personal plans to move beyond their current situation. And it has been great for the kids too: Circles is a two-generational approach, with an age-appropriate curriculum coinciding with what their parents are learning.
How has Open Door changed based on the community’s needs?
When we began to see the same people coming to us on a regular basis for the same need, we asked ourselves, “What could we do differently to help people no longer need this type of service, to be self-sustaining?” We took a hard look at how we were providing services, and what long-term solutions would create a space where people could envision a future beyond their current situation and plan for it, without a sense of dependency on our organization and services—where they could answer the question, “What would my life really look like if I could do this on my own?” We changed some priorities, for instance closing a clothing ministry and using that space for the Open Door Institute, where we provide classes in GED prep, culinary arts, computers, and life skills. We also looked again at the children’s program we have been offering for 81 years, refocusing on academic enrichment and reading development. That has been an amazing change to watch: to see kids who were barely getting by in school, some who have been with us since age 5, now graduating high school.
How have you kept Open Door going for the past 81 years?
Our work began when a deaconess was placed by the church in the community to live, work, and serve the persons who lived there too. As neighbors, the church worked with the community to identify the issues they’d like to resolve and find solutions. Open Door sprang out of that effort, to engage the community in such a way that we are a part of it, and I think that collaborative spirit is one of the things that has helped us through the decades: approaching ministry and programming with the sense that the people we provide services for—and with—are the experts in their own lives. Rather than tell people you could fix your life if you just did A, B, and C, we become a partner with them.
Because we are community-centered, we’ve avoided pigeonholing ourselves with respect to one type of service. We are a national mission institution of United Methodist Women, so we focus on women and youth, but we have expanded to serve men and others, based on need. The implications for any single person are great: We have one lady, now a part of the seniors program for weekly socialization and fellowship, who has been coming here for nearly 70 years.
The values we hold and the mission we follow have stayed the same through the years, but as the community around us changed, we have been willing to change with it, identifying new needs by working together. We began to provide homeless services about 30 years ago because of a growing need, particularly among young women who were victims of abusive relationships and needed a safe place to go. We’ve also incubated other nonprofits, built important organizational partnerships, and developed a long-term, “God-sized” vision for what Columbus neighborhoods, and the city as a whole, can be.
Rachel Letcher is communications coordinator at GCN.