On A Mission: Restoring Hope For Seniors
All of that changed for Sloan last summer, when Next Step Ministries came to Lorain County, bringing a couple hundred volunteers during a six-week period. They built wheelchair ramps, replaced roofs and installed flooring. Spirited high schoolers on mission trips through their churches did the grunt work that gave some Lorain seniors access to a better life and the hope that they are not forgotten.
“So often, this generation is gracious enough to do without — they take responsibility for themselves, and they may say, ‘Oh, help someone else who needs it more,’ ” says Dawn Meyer, vice president of Neighborhood Alliance, which partnered with Next Step, guiding the teen missionaries toward people in need of building projects.
For seniors in Lorain, the need is great for physical labor to build a wheelchair ramp or make a home safer by replacing dangerous flooring. “Many of these individuals were never of great means; they worked all of their life, and to hear and see some of the challenges they face in the latter years of their lives — you know, they don’t deserve that,” Meyer relates.
Next Step established Lorain County as one of its 14 sites throughout the world and is committed to serving the people here for the next decade.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘Why would they come here? Why would they come to Lorain County? Why not go to Jamaica or Haiti?’ ” relates Jadera Thomas, marketing and public relations specialist for Neighborhood
Alliance. “And it’s because help is needed here, and they go where they are needed.”
Help Wanted at Home
In Lorain County, more than half of the senior population is living below the poverty level. Poverty in the county jumped by one-third in 2009 when the recession — or, rather, depression — hit the county. When it comes to attracting funding or mission groups, “that divide at the county line is huge,” says Beau Dansizen, director of youth and family ministries at Avon Lake Presbyterian Church and founder of My Generation Missions, which organizes mission trips for young adults ages 18-30. “A lot of money for mission work goes to Cleveland, and Lorain and Elyria get forgotten,” he relates.
Dansizen is passionate about missions — working at the ground level, building change, making a difference one life at a time. He has led groups to the Bahamas, Louisville and West Virginia.
“Why not have Lorain be a destination city?” he asked. But when he tried to organize a “trip” for students to stay and work here, the idea didn’t go over so well. “No one signed up,” he says. “I got a little bit discouraged. Then I thought, there must be youth in other cities looking for somewhere else to go on a mission trip. If I’m taking a group to Louisville, there must be a group there who wants to come here.”
Dansizen had traveled through Next Step and got to know one of its founders, Nick Cocalis. Dansizen remembers a conversation with Cocalis in the middle of All Saints Camp in Nassau, a neglected community suffering from AIDS and HIV. “There was work going on all around us, and I said to Nick, ‘I have this dream that a group like yours will make my home a project. We really need it.’ I gave him stats, and he said, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ ”
Cocalis eventually traveled to Lorain County and met with Dansizen, who acted as an ambassador and showed him the community, introducing his Next Step friend to the county’s resources and showing him exactly what those statistics illustrated: run-down neighborhoods, people in need, closed factories, people facing hard times who need to be lifted up.
In December 2012, Dansizen got a phone call from Next Step. Lorain County would be one of its project sites, with a mission season beginning that summer. “It was a whirlwind,” Dansizen says of getting the program off the ground in Lorain. Next Step commits to its sites for the long-term, so the agreement was that the ministry would organize trips to Lorain County for eight to 10 years. Dansizen introduced Next Step to Neighborhood Alliance and a synergy emerged.
“We were able to get them to pause long enough to say, ‘Tell me what this is,’ ” says Dansizen, who relates that some organizations were not sure how to respond to an offer to help (for free). “It’s like, ‘What is the catch?’ you know? ‘Do you need money from us? Do you need an investment from us?’ And we say, ‘No, no. All we want is the permission to do good.’ It’s amazing how many obstacles we put in our own way when it comes to that.”
Neighborhood Alliance had a direct connection to people of all ages in the community who rely on its various services. The organization serves infants through Help Me Grow and has a few clients who are 100 years old and receive hot meals. But the seniors really face challenges reaching the services that are available to them, Meyer says. “Many are financially struggling, they are homebound because of physical, social or mental reasons or because they cannot drive,” she relates. “Some are isolated and do not have family members or others to help them.
“This population was really a good fit for Next Step to come in and bring their core of volunteers into the community so they could meet with these seniors and let them know they are not forgotten while working on projects that will keep them safe in their homes.”
The program has gained support from partners including PNC’s Community Development Banking group, which invests in economic development, affordable housing, neighborhood revitalization and stabilization, work development and sustainability projects and initiatives.
“The Neighborhood Alliance program, in partnership with Next Step Ministries, provides an important resource for seniors whose homes are in need of repairs, creating a positive impact on the personal lives of homeowners and our community as a whole,” says Saul Ramos, vice president and community consultant at PNC Community Development Banking.
The Impact of Mission
Church-sponsored youth mission trips expose young people to new cultures, experiences that may be uncomfortable. The trips are physically and spiritually challenging. They are life-changing, giving youth an opportunity to help people one at a time — and to make connections.
John Ploetz, area director with Wisconsin-based Next Step, says the missions are so much more than constructing a wheelchair ramp or reroofing a home. It’s about building relationships. Take Sloan. “When we first got there, she was very shy. She didn’t really trust anyone and, you know, we were doing an outdoor project, so she would come to the back screen door to watch,” he says.
The Next Step crew of about 10 youth volunteers arrived at Sloan’s house on a Monday. “By Wednesday, she came out of her house and sat on the picnic table, and we talked to her about her kids,” Ploetz says. By Friday, she invited the crew in for tea.
“No one had been able to break her shyness or protectiveness of her house,” Ploetz continues. “But hanging around these kids and having someone to talk to broke that shyness. And we thought, ‘This is amazing, how do we keep this going?’ ”
One of the volunteers writes letters to Sloan. For a woman who has been completely left alone in her home, that communication is gold. During the summer, Next Step volunteers brought Mrs. Sloan a birthday cake.
Next Step brought in its first round of youth missionaries on June 16, and every week a new group came to Lorain and stayed at Avon Lake Presbyterian church, sleeping on air mattresses in Sunday school rooms. The church converted its spaces into living quarters, and Dansizen served as Next Step’s main liaison. He was at the church daily, working alongside Next Step, getting congregation members involved in the work.
To hear about a mission trip or watch a video about it is one thing. To see it happen in your own community is another — the impact is moving. “This was the first time we as a congregation were thrust into the work right here, as the missionaries were coming back and forth and living in our church and filling it with this love of serving,” Dansizen says.
The impact of Next Step’s work in the community is visible. Roughly 15 projects were completed. “When you drive through the areas that we left in our wake last summer, you see wheelchair ramps and, all of a sudden, you realize this is a meal that we can take bite by bite and make a real difference,” Dansizen relates. “It’s infectious. People see change, that something is happening, and they want
to be part of it. They want to make a difference and see that they can do
Next Step has been a catalyst for good works in Lorain County. Other community groups took notice of the helping hands of youth missionaries that visited Lorain all summer. Groups such as Seniors 4 Seniors at Elyria Catholic High School began to get involved.
Seniors 4 Seniors is a program where students from Elyria Catholic volunteer in the community one day per month. Groups of 13 students take on service projects such as yard cleanups. Working through Neighborhood Alliance, these students picked up where Next Step left off.
“Students have an opportunity to see some of the challenges that others in the community face, and they realize how they can make a positive impact,” says Michael Wisnor, assistant principal of Elyria Catholic High School. “We encourage students to go out and have an encounter with another human being and get their hands dirty while helping others. That has been our
call to arms for the [Seniors 4 Seniors] program.”
Dansizen shares how passersby would stop their cars. “They’d ask: ‘What are you doing?’ with genuine curiosity. ‘I hear you are building this ramp for free. I hear you are doing this for anyone who needs it.’ We would say, we do this because we are spreading the love of God by doing great things for people who need help. That is why we are here … and what we are supposed to do.”
Last summer, about 200 volunteers from throughout the country signed up for Next Step’s Lorain mission trip. Already, 300 youth are enrolled for 2014 — and this is before the heavy recruiting season. “We look forward to a lot of growth,” Meyer says, adding in the future Next Step might identify larger-scale projects, such as complete new-builds or building retrofits.
Already, the partnership between Next Step and Neighborhood Alliance, with support from Avon Lake Presbyterian church and Danizen’s youth and family ministries, is forming a network of helping.
Ploetz says Next Step and Avon Lake Presbyterian hope to launch a sort of adoption program for summer 2014, where congregation members will sponsor a family and follow up with them after projects are complete. That could mean a monthly visit just
As for the success of the first summer season, Ploetz says the results are immeasurable. “When you look at the fact that some of these families could not get out of their house because they didn’t have access to a wheelchair ramp — and now they can get groceries — that is pretty successful,” he says.
When Paul Knott delivers a hot meal to one of the 85 seniors on his route, he knows that he may be the only person that adult will see or talk to that day. He’s knocking on the door with nourishment, hot food — and good company, even if only for a few short minutes.
“I’m a people person,” says Knott, who began working with Neighborhood Alliance in 2007 after he retired. “I can draw them out and see if they need something, like their garbage taken out or a light bulb changed or a different doorknob. We go over not just delivering meals, and if I have to go back on my own time to help, I will.”
Other drivers also take time to return to seniors’ homes to help with simple repairs or chores around the house that are too difficult for their aging clients to manage, he says.
Because meal drivers like Knott are on the front lines, stopping at nearly 100 homes four days a week where hot meals are needed, they can put a call to action for seniors who need extra help. That’s why Neighborhood Alliance suggested senior building projects to Next Step Ministries.
Knott delivers meals to Delores Sloan, who “has absolutely no one.” Her porch was dilapidated. “It was ready to fall in, and I kept telling her she needed to get that porch replaced — and Next Step came in and got involved,” he says.
“The people who work with Next Step are awesome,” Knott says. “They got kind of close to Mrs. Sloan, and it was good for her, and she was so happy to get this porch. We all went out and bought flowers to put on it — that was the icing on the cake.”
Knott knows his role is vitally important to the seniors he serves. On one visit, he found an elderly man on his hands and knees — he fell while trying to get to his chair. “We need to see these people every day because the families don’t know, and they don’t call their families,” he says.
There’s a 101-year-old woman Knott delivers meals to who insists on giving him a big hug at every visit. “They feel like my family,” he says. “You get really attached to them.”
A Man on a Mission
Beau Dansizen remembers his first mission trip. “It wasn’t that long ago,” says the director of youth and family ministries at Avon Lake Presbyterian Church. In 2008, Dansizen traveled as a chaperone with the youth group to Salvation Army day camp in Louisville, Ky. “It changed my life,” he says simply.
“It changed my focus, and I knew that youth ministry was what I wanted to do — ministry in general, but physical missions.”
Dansizen began organizing mission trips for his church and attending some missions organized through Next Step. He traveled with the organization to Nassau, Bahamas, where he saw the other side of the white sandy beach resort landscape. During a weeklong mission — a trip he now guides each year through his nonprofit, My Generation Missions — Dansizen worked at All Saints Camp, a refuge for HIV-positive women, children and men.
But there’s lots of work to do close to home as well. And Dansizen wondered if Lorain could be a site for youth missionaries. He began conversations with Next Step, which eventually led to their visiting Lorain and selecting the community as one of its 14 sites.
“We have a tendency to look away,” Dansizen says, relating how we seek out mission trips to help communities in others states, other countries. “I think sometimes it takes an organization like Next Step to come in and say, ‘Look, this is right here. This is your back yard. These are your neighbors and your family right here in town that need your help.’”
Mission trips change lives. Seemingly small changes in one’s community — building a wheelchair ramp, planting flowers, cleaning up a yard — do make a big impact. “When kids do this [mission] work and they see this gratitude, they see a sense of accomplishment and that they are not getting any type of money for the work they are doing. It’s a humbling situation,” Dansizen says.
“Of course, they do receive,” he continues. “They get a lot of love from the people who are getting the work done for them. And what ends up happening is you train missionaries — youth come out here, and they go home with that feeling that they want to help again.”
Dansizen organized mission trips for church youth but noticed a void for the 18- to 30-year-old set. There are age limits on some trips, and yet young adults cannot necessarily commit to a longer-term trip that lasts for several months. So he founded My Generation Missions (mygenerationmissions.org), which caters to missionary ‘tweens: those in between youth-only and adult-only outings.
“Getting Next Step here was a personal yearlong endeavor and was one of the goals of My Generation Missions,” Dansizen says, proud and excited about what the partnership means for the community he loves. “My heart is in Lorain County. I grew up in Avon Lake.”
Dansizen’s life in summer is constant mission work, he says. “It’s constant helping other people — it’s such a great feeling to be able to focus on that.”