CHHSM Leads the Way in Ferguson

For more than 100 children from Ferguson, Missouri, the summer of 2015 helped heal the trauma from last year, when their community was shattered by the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teen shot and killed by a local police officer.

The kids enjoyed enrichment activities during several new summer camps organized by St. Louis-based CHHSM member Neighborhood Houses, which quickly mobilized the kind of support for children and families that guides its work.

“Our mission is to prepare children and help them reach their magnificent potential,” says Darlene Sowell, president and CEO of Neighborhood Houses. Weeks before the Ferguson Commission would issue its recommendations for correcting racial inequities revealed by Brown’s death and the community’s anguish, Neighborhood Houses had already stepped in with critical support — providing kids with a positive experience for the summer. The commission was formed last November by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to work toward positive change in the St. Louis area following unrest in the wake of Brown’s death.

Even as Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area await tangible action recommended in the far-reaching report the Ferguson Commission issued in September, community organizations such as Neighborhood Houses are moving ahead. They’ve both expanded and sharpened their focus as they work to step up their own grassroots response.

CHHSM members continue to play a critical part leading efforts to effect change at the policy level and to improve the lives of individuals at the ground level. As co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission, the Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of CHHSM member Deaconess Foundation, helped convene a three-day conference in late October at St. John’s Church in north St. Louis where he is pastor. The conference was aimed at urging policymakers to turn many of the commission’s recommendations into reality.

“We’ve learned that race and racialized disparities are hard wired into our region. They’re hard wired into our fragmentation. They’re hard wired into our relationships with one another,” Wilson said in a TV news interview at the conference. “In order to overcome that fragmentation; in order to overcome that racial disparity, we’ve got to put in place policies, legislation, regulation, ordinances that fundamentally shift how we relate to one another.”

Race relations are a top priority for the United Church of Christ’s general minister and president, the Rev. John Dorhauer. As part of his new five-point strategic plan, Dorhauer calls for the church to develop curricula by September 2016 that will open sacred conversations on race and the effects of white privilege.

Organizations already focused on addressing the kinds of racial disparities underscored in the report now see their work as even more valuable.

“The Ferguson Commission report highlights a lot of the systemic things we need to do as a community,” says Sowell. “The report highlights the importance of our work and how critical it is. It’s heightened my awareness of the calling and mission of this work.”

Neighborhood Houses supports underserved children with programs such as before- and after-school care and early childhood education and care in the St. Louis area. With a grant from the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund, Neighborhood Houses ran the summer camps this year in partnership with three North St. Louis churches for 105 Ferguson children age six to 12. The eight-week camps provided educational enrichment, field trips, swimming instruction and character education, each culminating with a dramatic performance.

“We want to make sure that kids are in a safe, constructive and educational environment,” Sowell says. “Kids need the tools to be successful adults.”

For Deaconess Faith Community Nurse Ministries, the crisis in Ferguson and the commission’s report have resulted in greater cooperation and coordination among service providers to ensure individual needs are met, says the Rev. Donna Smith-Pupillo, executive director of the CHHSM member ministry.

“The thing that has changed is there’s more of an emphasis on looking at the broader scope of services,” Smith-Pupillo says. “There’s much more collaboration. No one can do this alone. We have to do it together.”

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