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Youth give back to make a difference for others

Daniel Wisehart, 17, packs boxes at the Welfare Reform Liaison Project in Greensboro, N.C., during a mission opportunity with Youth 2007. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

By Linda Green*
Aug. 1, 2007 | GREENSBORO, N.C. (UMNS)



The Rev. Odell Cleveland

While Greensboro Coliseum served as the hub of Youth 2007, Daniel Wisehart, 17, opted to spend one day of the experience at a local warehouse, quietly packing boxes with supplies for military families and disaster survivors.

"I wanted to give back and help out wherever I could," said Wisehart, of Long's Peak United Methodist Church in Longmont, Colo.

As part of the largest youth gathering of The United Methodist Church, young people like Wisehart fanned out across Greensboro to participate in mission and outreach projects. About 6,200 young people attended Youth 2007, which is held every four years and took place July 11-15 under the sponsorship of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

Daily mission, ministry and workshop opportunities included the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, a 10-year-old ecumenically and civically supported distribution center that helps economically disadvantaged people become self-sufficient.

There, United Methodist youth built and packed boxes to distribute toys to families of military personnel through Salvation Army outlets across the United States. Other boxes were filled with personal hygiene packets bound for survivors of floods, tornadoes and other disasters.

Headed by the Rev. Odell Cleveland, a Baptist clergyman in Greensboro, the project warehouses donated products to assist poor people in the greater Greensboro area. Volunteers regularly unpack items such new clothing, paper, cleaning products, toiletries and household goods.

The project also provides job training for displaced workers, people moving off welfare rolls and getting out of prison, and "poor people who society says will not turn out to be anything," according to Cleveland. Through an eight-week training program, participants learn about personal development, money management, computers and technology – as well as addressing issues of attitude. They are taught job skills that they get to practice on the people that come to the center for assistance.

Scott Johnson of St. James United Methodist Church in Tarboro, N.C., boxes toys that will go to the families of
military personnel.

"People do not care about how much you know until they know how much you care," Cleveland said.

As Youth 2007 participants pitched in with warehouse chores, Cleveland was impressed by their witness to others. "This makes a difference because these experiences here tell people that the diapers they are packing up might be the difference between a stressed mother not hurting her child," he said.

A different approach to welfare

The Welfare Reform Liaison Project provides a bridge to help people change.

While the ministry's name is problematic for some people, Cleveland uses every opportunity to remove the negative implications of the word "welfare" and affirm its biblical intent of helping fellow human beings.

"In some people's minds, the word 'welfare' is an African-American female with numerous kids. But in the Bible, the word 'welfare' is about how someone is doing," Cleveland said.

Followers of Jesus Christ "have to go back and reach the poor. We have to reach those who a lot of people think cannot do certain things," he said.

Sinda Lewis

Growing up as an African-American male in the South in the 1960s, Cleveland said the project is what "I wish someone had done for me and my family when I was growing up."

As part of his seminary master's thesis, Cleveland focused on the black church's response to then President Clinton's 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The "faith-based" project grew out of his research and was launched in 1997 in partnership with corporate America, churches and other groups in an effort to help people have a more abundant life.

Sinda Lewis, a 1999 job training graduate, is among those who have benefited. "When I came to this project, I was really broken. I came here looking for one thing, but I got something else," said Lewis, who is developing an alumni program.

Perhaps more importantly than the job training she received, Lewis values the lessons that helped her develop her character. "What was being healed in me was my brokenness – the issues in life that had beaten me down," she said.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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