If you want to break the cycle of poverty in Memphis, go spend the day with an incredible group – Advance Memphis. This organization serves the 38126 zipcode, which was the 3rd poorest zipcode in the country in 1999. Their goal is to provide job skills, resources, knowledge, and support to adult in this community, in an effort to provide a path to a better life.
There are many programs at Advance Memphis that cater to the local community, but that also go beyond what you would normally expect for a program. For example, they offer a GED class and although they focus on the test itself, this class also deals with the social, community and individual barriers that might discourage people from completing their GED. At the beginning of the class, Mike Shaw shares a video that highlights Advance Memphis graduates as they discuss the obstacles that prevented their high school completion and that inspired them to earn their GEDs. What struck me about this video was the range of complex issues that affect high school graduation – taking care of siblings, the desire to make money to provide for family and sudden relocation. I think many people mistakenly conclude that a lack of high school diploma indicates laziness, but in many cases the opposite is true. People didn’t drop out of high school – many choose to leave because they were deciding among tough priorities. As the video played I looked at the GED hopefuls in the room and wondered whether this message of hope and understanding was touching them as well.
The GED courses are just once service. They also offer resume advice, mock job interviews, soft skills training, and financial advice. The thing that struck me, though, was the power of relationships. From the staff and volunteers, I learned that poverty extends well beyond finances. For many, this is a lifestyle devoid of hope where the present anguish is the only indication of what the future holds. Imagine that you’ve never heard any say, “You can do it” or “I believe in you.” What would life be like if every person and every place reinforced the concept of worthlessness? For many in this neighborhood, that experience and those beliefs have consumed entire lives. Imagine then, walking into Advance Memphis where a group of people reach out to you and tell you that there is a better life and your destiny is within your control. What an incredible message. It’s even more incredible when you can see that people are starting to believe it.
Among their many programs and services, Advance offers a “Champions” program where a volunteer meets with a small group for 12 weeks and provides the crucial relationship support aspect to the program. I have the opportunity to sit in on one of these sessions and to be perfectly honest, I was really nervous. I’ve worked in numerous homeless shelters and food banks, but I have never had a long conversation and I wasn’t sure what to expect. You know what I found? They’re people just like me. Their names are Ptosha, LaTasha and Kynertria. I found that I related to them quickly and that all barriers and nervousness melted away after just a few minutes. While I’ll always be a little nervous about meeting new people, I’m realizing more and more that we’re all just people. Deep down I know that already, but it’s easy to let anxiety cloud that fact. The more people you meet and the more communities you see will help you see past and ultimately eliminate these barriers. During the champion meeting, each person shared the obstacles to their success and I was touched by their poignant stories. I found myself wishing that I could do more to help, because although I was there to volunteer and to give, I truly believe that I received more than I gave.
Advance Memphis is very upfront about the fact that they are Christian focused and that they actively promote Christianity through their programs. Many of their programs and volunteer opportunities like Champions (mentioned above), counseling, and the Faith and Finance Allies require that their volunteers sign a statement of faith in order to volunteer because the topics center around Christianity. However, there are also many opportunities do not require this designation. For example, if you want to teach computer classes or interview skills, you are welcome regardless of your background. I asked their Director, Steve Nash, for clarification on this point. I shared with him that there are many volunteers who do not fall under the Advance Memphis statement of faith, but who would still want to help and make an impact. I asked how they regard these volunteers and what he would say to someone who wants to help, but without declaring a Christian affiliation. He said “While we have never backed away from who we are and what we believe, we are respectful of the fact that others may not share out beliefs. We’re not going to tell you what to believe and we respect your space and your beliefs. Regardless of your beliefs, we want to get to know you and your interests so we can find the best way to put your skills to use.”
How to Help
Volunteer! Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can make an impact here! Even something as simple as providing lunch can enable someone to focus on their mission in life. For a complete list of volunteer opportunities, visit their website.
Donate! Every little bit helps and your money will be put to good use!
Grant something on their wish list!
- More employers to hire graduations from their Job for Life program
- Assistance in remodeling. If you can resurface the floor, help with build outs, provide HVAC/electrical services, etc. they would be eternally grateful!
- Upgrade phone system. They need help determine the right phone system for their business. Once that is nailed down, they’ll need donations to make it happen.
Follow them on Facebook.
What comes after the 30 Days of Mission Memphis? Volunteer Bound! I’m traveling across the country to promote volunteerism and I want to take you with me!