Shreveport's Community Renewal program reconnects neighbors

August 1, 2011

CHRISTUS Schumpert supports program aimed at reversing neighborhood decay, creating safe places for kids

It was while reading a British historian's work on the rise and fall of the world's great civilizations that Mack McCarter, then a pastor in West Texas in 1981, had what he now calls his "aha moment."

McCarter was intrigued by Arnold J. Toynbee's analysis of large societies and the fact that every single one that has flourished throughout human history also has declined, decayed and collapsed.

But he says he was really struck by Toynbee's definition of society as "a system of relationships" that can be either destructive or mutually enhancing. "The key is to take the rules of a relationship and apply those to scale for cities,'' says McCarter.

McCarter will tell you that he isn't the first person to believe that strong personal relationships among neighbors form the basis for a thriving community. But he decided to put his opinions into action after he returned to his hometown of Shreveport in 1991. Three years later, he started the Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal program. Shreveport and Bossier City are sister cities separated by the Red River in Louisiana's northwest corner.

One of the supporters of McCarter's program is CHRISTUS Schumpert Health System in Shreveport. Since 2002, the health center has provided a former medical clinic across the street from the hospital's campus for Community Renewal's offices, originally with a $1-per-year lease. Recessionary pressures led CHRISTUS Schumpert to institute a small monthly rent. "They've been a great partner,'' says McCarter of CHRISTUS Schumpert.

Friendship Houses
Friendship Houses are one of the key elements and perhaps the most visible strategy that Community Renewal uses to foster relationships in Shreveport. These are homes built in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. Every house has a large community room where children can come after school for snacks, help with homework, tutoring, computer training and character-building games and recreation.

The first two Friendship Houses opened in the spring and summer of 1997. Currently, full-time staffers with Community Renewal, known as community coordinators, and those staffers' families live in nine Friendship Houses in five neighborhoods in Shreveport. Community Renewal acquired two houses and built seven of the homes from scratch, says McCarter.

"What's significant is the family that moves in and becomes the fabric of the neighborhood,'' he says. "Our people become the leavening forces of caring. They rebuild the caring infrastructure of those devastated neighborhoods."

Another facet of Community Renewal involves recruiting and training volunteers on each city block who are encouraged to plant a "We Care" sign in their yard and offer support in a variety of ways to their neighborhood. Haven House leaders, as they are called, might host a block party, take meals to a sick neighbor or just offer a listening ear.

McCarter says Community Renewal has trained 1,200 block leaders, and its goal is to reach 5,000 city blocks within the Shreveport-Bossier area.

It's a small world
Community Renewal addresses the problem of community alienation, says McCarter. "You can email someone in Berlin, but you don't know who's living and dying five houses from you,'' he says. "We begin to take for granted our relationships. Within Shreveport, our whole idea is to build a demonstration city on how to get reconnected together."

Through its website and also due to the fact that McCarter speaks frequently to groups around the U.S., parts of the Community Renewal concept have spread to many other states. A version of Community Renewal is being adopted in Abilene, Texas, for instance.

In 2005, Community Renewal went to Cameroon, Africa, at the invitation of some village chiefs, says David Westerfield, director of communications for Community Renewal. The connection was made after a young man from Cameroon came to Shreveport to study and began working for Community Renewal. There are now two Friendship Houses operating in Cameroon, he says.

As a result of its growing mission, the Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal program decided in 2008 to change its name to Community Renewal International.

The program has received national attention. In 1998, The Pew Partnership for Civic Change recognized Community Renewal as a national model in its "Solutions for America" initiative. The Manhattan Institute chose the program for its 2005 Social Entrepreneurship Award, which honors nonprofit organizations that are using innovative, private solutions for America's most pressing social problems. It was selected by the Clinton White House as a "best practice model" at a conference on community renewal, and McCarter has represented Community Renewal at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City for the past three years.

But McCarter also readily acknowledges that Community Renewal has struggled during the country's economic downturn. He says the program's budget is about

$2.6 million a year, with funding coming from a variety of sources, including grants, as well as donations from individuals and local churches and corporations. The non-profit hasn't been able to maintain its budget and has fallen behind on its payroll, says McCarter. Yet he is proud of the fact that none of the program's 35 full-time staffers has resigned.

CHRISTUS' support
CHRISTUS Schumpert has been a loyal supporter. Bonnie J. Burnett, vice president of mission for CHRISTUS Schumpert, says the health system has been "blessed by the opportunity to provide office space to an organization whose activities align well" with the core values of CHRISTUS, which are dignity, integrity, excellence, compassion and stewardship.

Burnett says the two sponsoring Texas congregations of CHRISTUS — the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston and the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio — have a legacy of caring for their community. That legacy is not just through the hospitals and their health care ministries, but through community partnerships like the one that exists between CHRISTUS and Community Renewal.

"We daily invest in programs that improve the quality of life in the community that surrounds our hospitals," says Burnett. "The people we serve are not just our patients — they are our neighbors, family and friends."

 

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.