Miss Donna has lived there for more than three decades. She knows the stories of every house. She mows her own lawn, rakes her own leaves and heads up the community watch. When something seems off, she calls the police. Miss Donna is a cheerleader for her portion of the 35805 zip code.
Known as the north end of town or west side by people who grew up outside of it, this area has lost its identity over the years. Back in the ‘70s, it was one of the best places to be. S.R. Butler High School was one of the best schools in the city—go Rebels—but things changed as baby boomers moved out and the interstate came through.
These days, it’s a mix—people who raise chickens in their backyards for organic eggs, homes with toys in the front yard and happy babies playing in the grass, those who have fallen into crisis-mode or worse—a life of crime.
Debbi Akers, executive director of CornerStone Initiative, sees diversity daily; her office overlooks what many consider to be one of the roughest parts of Huntsville. And from that office, she seeks ways to empower people in that community through employment and education opportunities so they can provide for their families.
CornerStone Initiative is taking an uncommon approach; instead of telling residents what they need, they listen. People in this neighborhood might not be materially rich, but there are strong families, strong supporters and children with potential to change the world one day. CornerStone finds those people and empowers them to move beyond their situations by focusing on employment, enrichment and education.
“We head that direction through listening,” Debbi said. “That is…what sets us apart from some mission efforts. We don’t assume we know what anyone or any community needs. We do a lot of listening, and our initiatives are based on what we hear.”
CornerStone Initiative began in 2012 with the intent to take one neighborhood and make it better. They have specific boundaries—Holmes Avenue to Governors Drive, Memorial Parkway to 14th Street. It’s an odd mix of public housing and single-family homes owned by the same people for decades.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Everybody here is living in poverty,’ ” Debbi said. “I really struggle with that word…because we have relationships with so many of these people and their families. To say ‘Hey, we’re covering the poor’ seems so condescending. I typically use the term materially poor or under-resourced…because there…are people here who may be financially under-resourced, but spiritually, they are so rich.”
Owning The Pond
The washing machine breaks. The refrigerator stops working, and all the food spoils. There’s an interview for a new job opportunity, but the car broke down. Life frustrations leave people in need of immediate assistance—one thing after another leaves people in crisis mode, Debbi said. And the psychological toll is devastating, leaving people believing nothing will ever change for the better.
That cycle is what CornerStone Initiative looks to break.
“If we believe in development—in Christian community development—where do we move from relief…to a place where that person, that family, has the dignity of providing for themselves (and) their own families (without) standing in line for some direct service every month?” Debbi said.
It’s the idea that people in the community have skin in the game—really taking ownership of their lives—that CornerStone wants to build. Someday, CornerStone Initiative could dissolve, but the people they have trained and encouraged will still take ownership of their own lives.
“A lot of people try to compare it to the old adage, ‘Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,’ ” Debbi said. “Well, yes, but we believe that not only do we teach people to fish, but we give them the opportunity to own the pond, to develop a bait and tackle shop.”
CornerStone Initiative is making changes to impact the current community for generations to come.
Man To Man
By listening, CornerStone Initiative staff have discovered job training and preparedness are needed most. So, they’ve teamed up with Jobs For Life, a group that pairs job seekers with a champion—someone who serves as a cheerleader—for an entire year.
Champions encourage job seekers, but they won’t do the work for them. They don’t fill out applications. If someone misses three Jobs For Life classes, they are out of the program.
It’s a new approach to ministry that mixes a lot of encouragement with a little bit of tough love.
“I know I’m not going to be honoring God if I make someone dependent on me,” Debbi said.
Debbi remembers one man who came, slump shouldered, into her office, uncertain why he was there. He had a prison record; there are very few felony-friendly companies around. CornerStone paired him with one of the higher ups at a tech company, who found a job for him with a CornerStone partner—a construction company. It didn’t take the man long to rise through the ranks. In fact, the owners had to move people around just to give him promotions he deserved.
A few months later, Debbi caught a glimpse of the man talking to his champion. He was standing straight and tall—no more slouch.
“It wasn’t an ex-con and some suit,” Debbi said. “It was man to man.”
Not everyone is ready for change. Debbi has seen far too many people leave before getting help, but it’s the ones who want to work—the ones who want to break the cycle of dependency—who make the CornerStone’s efforts worthwhile.
“With dependency comes a loss of dignity and hopelessness,” Debbi said. “We want to see the hope restored in the lives and neighborhoods. And we know, at the end of the day, stuff can’t do that. Only Christ can do that.”
**This article originally appeared in the Community Journal.