Supporting Communities in the Face of a Pandemic: A Conversation with Sharpel Welch
Community Renewal International is a faith-based organization based in Shreveport, Louisiana, that brings communities together through “Friendship Houses,” which are homes with live-in staff that serve as a community centers for people in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods throughout the state. Spotlight spoke with Community Renewal International’s Youth Community Coordinator and 2019 Manhattan Institute Civil Society Fellow, Sharpel Welch, to discuss the impact that the Friendship Houses have had on children and families living in the neighborhoods and how they are responding to the challenges posed by COVID-19. For more information about Community Renewal International, you can visit their website here.
Can you give a brief overview of Community Renewal International? How did the Friendship Houses start?
Community Renewal International was founded by Mack McCarter in the 1990s, a time when there were many high-crime neighborhoods. So, the organization began to address this issue and the associated problems that came with it by building the first Friendship House in Allendale, Louisiana. Since its inception, the organization has built multiple homes and the crime rate in those areas has now dropped by an average of 60% in a 20-40 block radius. Friendship Houses are only one part of what we do. We also have Haven Houses with block leaders on each block. We can’t get to know everybody, so we trust our Haven House leaders. They have a small training and then they take care of their neighbors and provide support.
The “We Care” team is people all over the city. This is where we test a wider net of people. We ask them to fill out a card and write one thing they’ve done to help the community. If they can do that, we give them a sticker for their car or yard and they are free to join the team. We currently have a network of 100,000 strong. People know that when they see our signs that they have a safe place to go.
We also have the Adult Renewal Academy, which allows the adults in the community to attend classes and receive their GED. A total of 130 people have received their GED and many have gone on to higher education or to receive technical training. As an organization, we try to prepare the people in the community with the necessary life skills to succeed beyond their neighborhoods.
How does the work you do shape the community? What are some successful tools that you use to address the challenges associated with poverty?
The most important strategy is the Friendship Houses. I myself live in a Friendship House. We literally move couples to at-risk neighborhoods to provide this service – and then we are here to stay. We also do a lot of trust-building with the community. At first, people were waiting for us to leave, but when they saw that we were here to stay, trust began to build. That’s what makes us different. We are just neighbors giving back and trying to reconstruct the neighborhood through caring.
How have you made the transition to focusing more on the COVID-19 outbreak?
We are committed to passing on information. There are information gaps and misinformation. We pass on information about what COVID-19 is, how to avoid infection, and the national/international numbers. We are also reliant on our Haven leaders to get flyers out and educate the children.
What are some of the other specific ways that Community Renewal International is helping the community during the pandemic?
We have been sheltering in place, staying home as much as possible and ensuring that the community we work with knows that as well. My husband as well as other Haven House staff deliver food and tend to the needs of the community as they arise. We have conference calls with all the Haven leaders and they contact every neighbor on their block to keep us up to date with the needs of the people. We are also working closely with children in the neighborhoods. I’m either on Facetime or Zoom meetings with the children daily to keep them up to date with their schoolwork. That’s been challenging because some houses only have one device with 6-7 students and so they all have to share one device or they just don’t have access to Wi-Fi at all. We are trying to keep things as normal as possible and make sure the right information is out there by contacting the neighbors and giving them information straight from the CDC website.
How has COVID-19 directly impacted the families you work with?
We do have families who have a parent who is considered an essential employee, but luckily there are older children in the households watching the younger children. I’m partnering with those parents to ensure that we can provide some form of childcare for them. As I said before, some homes don’t have Wi-Fi but there are companies offering free Wi-Fi. However, some families don’t understand the technicality of it all, so we work with them to get the free service. We have also begun to provide residents with laptops as necessary. Other Friendship Houses are echoing these practices as well, so we are trying to make this an organization-wide effort as best as we can.
The CARES Act aims to provide certain resources and benefits to families. Do you feel the bill has the ability to address the needs of vulnerable and/or marginalized communities?
Of course. It’s not enough, but every little bit helps. In this country we are stretched to capacity already and rather than harping on that, we’re going to need to come together and see what we can do to help. There were so many families in my community who were literally caught off guard and don’t have the resources and meals to prepare for this. They depend on school meals, so now that schools are closed, we are trying to fill that gap and provide these families with the food that they need. I don’t know that the $1,200 (the cash assistance for individuals under certain income limits provided through the CAREs Act) will solve everything that needs to get done, especially because the bills are adding up for these families. I’m thankful for the stimulus package though, every little bit helps. I just hope we can come together and learn from this and prepare for what’s next as best we can.
As a faith-based organization that is close to your community, is there anything you would want to see in an additional stimulus bill if there were to be one?
We need to get people back to work as soon as possible. Rather than making another round of stimulus available to corporations that aren’t really suffering yet, they should aim to help the people who are boots on the ground and really helping their communities. This includes other faith-based organizations, grassroots organizations, and nonprofits. Our organizations doesn’t get any government funding, so we are trying to meet a greater need with less resources even though we have more direct contact with people. Although I am seeing a renewed spirit with our donors, we have had to shift our budget around to provide for the community that we work with. Providing the necessary aid and resources to nonprofits will go a long way. It will also allow us to focus our efforts directly to vulnerable families in the community.
How do you think COVID-19 will change the economy in the long term, in terms of non-profits structure and budgeting?
Initially, everyone is going to take a hit. The economy will have to be rebuilt. Thoughts about where we need to put our focus in this country will change and it will open a whole new avenue for a lot less bureaucracy when it comes to distribution of resources. Hopefully, for organizations like mine, others will see that there is a real need for people who are on the front line.
Do you find that other cities are eager to adopt the Friendship House model?
We have a plan to scale this model to every neighborhood, especially stressed neighborhoods, in this nation. We have successful replication neighborhoods and our first international neighborhood in Africa. We have 10 replication cities in Oklahoma, Minnesota, DC, and Texas. Every community has a different personality, so we approach each home differently. We are just here to meet the needs of the community and to become friends and neighbors.
You mentioned that you don’t take government funding. Why not?
It’s hard to qualify what we do with what the government is also trying to do. For example, they will want to focus on issues such as hunger or crime. Since we are doing all of that, it is hard for their system to include us. We are not a replacement to a government program, rather we work hand in hand with the government. We fill in the gaps where we can.
What are some lessons learned as a community partner for replication?
Love works! You don’t need a lot, you don’t need to broadcast everything you’re doing – just go out and love. Whatever that means to you. That has worked for us and our communities. People with positive relationships are healthier than those isolated. We can solve a lot of other bigger problems with love and healthy relationships. A hard lesson is that the way to do this job is not to swoop into a community with a cape on your back. You have to have an equal attitude of connecting with neighbors and building trust.
Sharpel Welch is the Youth Community Coordinator with Community Renewal International.