Changing our community starts with our children…Meet two ladies who had a heart for a specific part of our city. They stepped out in faith and founded a thriving nonprofit that is changing many lives.
Hollygrove is a neighborhood in New Orleans bounded by Claiborne Avenue and the Interstate, Carrollton Avenue, and the Jefferson/Orleans Parish line. It has always been known as a high crime area, especially before Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, many volunteers came to New Orleans and helped to rebuild in Hollygrove, and they are still coming. Today, you can see newly built and renovated homes popping up every day – a sign of hope and renewal – but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the life and health of Hollygrove as a community.
Two local people who began ministering in Hollygrove after Hurricane Katrina are Debra Hoffman and Rachel De La Rosa. Before and after the storm, they were involved in many kinds of outreach projects in the New Orleans area. But as they got to know the people in Hollygrove, they felt the call to concentrate all of their ministries there. Hollygrove is a special place with a lot of potential. Their goal is to see the entire community of Hollygrove become a place of hope and faith. The task sounds overwhelming, but not if you have a dream. Debra and Rachel have a dream. They call their dream Jesus Project Ministries.
Debra and Rachel took the first step towards fulfilling their dream in the summer of 2009 by finding an empty lot in Hollygrove (on the corner of Cambronne & Apple Streets) and inviting the neighborhood kids to play ball. As they began developing more relationships in the neighborhood, Janyce Stratton, of Jesus Miracle Power, invited them to come in from the heat. She offered the use of a room in her building on Apple Street. At the time, the room was still damaged from Hurricane Katrina; it didn’t even have sheet rock. But it provided the next step towards fulfilling the dream. Now, thanks to many volunteers, that room is welcoming and brightly colored, a space designed for all kinds of community activities.
With the use of a building, Jesus Project was able to increase their services and grow a little bit more. They started offering after school tutoring. They have a youth group that meets on Friday evenings. They offer summer bible camp. Most of their programs are for children and youth, but Rachel and Debra want to reach the entire community, not just the children. Rachel De La Rosa, co-founder of Jesus Project Ministries, says that one way to gain the trust of the people in a community is to gain the trust of their children first – and through those relationships it will be possible to get to know entire families. Now, some of the families often go to church at All Nations Fellowship with Debra and Rachel on Sundays. All Nations supports JPM by partnering with them in their outreaches, and they also provide the use of their van to pick families up who want to attend church.
When I went to visit Jesus Project Ministries on a Monday in mid-July, they were in the middle of bible camp. There were two mission teams in town serving, one from Atlanta, and one from Mississippi. The volunteers were having a great time.
On a typical day at bible camp, the kids are fed lunch, then they play basketball and other sports outside from about 1-2 p.m. Then, until around 3:30, the children are divided into three groups – one for bible study, one for board games, and one for making crafts. The children change from one activity to the other every half hour. In each group they learn much more than the activity itself – they learn how to interact with each other, how to resolve conflict, how to share, and how to work and play together. They receive a lot of love during this time from Debra, Rachel, and their newest volunteer, Katie Barreca. On any given day JPM will serve around 40-50 kids, ages 5 and up. So far, about halfway through the summer of 2011, a total 106 children have attended JPM’s bible camp at one time or another.
Mission teams come to town for a week at a time to serve in this ministry, but local volunteers are needed too. Volunteers can help with tutoring, they can spend time with and mentor the kids, they can help organize and carry out various outreaches throughout the year, or they can donate and prepare food for daily meals or for various community outreach activities. People can also donate toys as Christmas gifts and school supplies.
Hollygrove used to be known as one of the highest crime areas in the city. Now, we don’t hear about homicides or other crimes on the news as often as we did before. People who are volunteering in Hollygrove are really making a difference. Trinity Christian Community, Jesus Miracle Power, and Jesus Project Ministries are just a few of the organizations doing outreach in the area. According to an AARP article[i], there were 6 murders in Hollygrove in the first half of 2009 and 3 in the first half of 2010. That is a reduction of 50%.
Rachel said that, for most kids in Hollygrove, murder, violence, drugs and other criminal activity can be seen as normal to them. Parents of some of the children are in jail. Rachel and Debra want to create a new norm for the kids – they want morality, peace, hope and faith to replace violence and drugs.
Debra and Rachel have a dream, and they work hard every day to make it come true. They started out taking small steps, but the point is that they started. Programs and activities are being added as they are able to grow. Someday they hope to have their own building. Jesus Project is making a difference in the lives of individuals – and in the entire community of Hollygrove. Rachel and Debra don’t get paid for what they do – in fact, Debra is working at another job so that she can earn funds to support and increase their ministry.
During my visit, as the day began to end, the children were given a fun quiz, and for each answer, they received a piece of candy. Then, an upbeat song was played, and they all sang and danced joyfully. It was clear that all of the kids were having a wonderful time. They felt safe. They felt loved. They were being strengthened. They were learning a new “normal.”
Do you want to help to make a difference? Here are some of the programs where Jesus Project can use your help:
- The Apple Street Learning Center – provides free tutoring for children from ages 5 & Up from Monday through Thursday during the school year
- Saturday is Evangelism & Outreach – 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. (check with JPM for details)
- Adult Bible Study – Thursday nights at 7 p.m.
- Prayer – Mondays and Saturdays at various locations
- Summer Bible Camp – Summer weekdays from 1-4
- Youth – Friday nights at 7 p.m.
- Back 2 School – School Supply drive – $13 can provide a backpack full of supplies for one child
- Outreaches throughout the year: Easter celebrations, Gifts of Love (a Mother’s Day Outreach), Cajun Thanksgiving, and Christmas (toys and food).
[i] “A Comeback Story in New Orleans,” AARP Bulletin, by Brad Admondson, 8/23/2010.