Saturday, 03 August 2013 12:17

Common Ground Montgomery - A Safe Haven for Children and Families in West Montgomery

Written by  Rachel Fisher
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Deep in the heart of the Washington Park neighborhood in West Montgomery stands what was once an old mill building with a tower stretching toward the sky – a landmark of sorts for this historic neighborhood that housed Civil rights activists and leaders of the 1950s and 60s. It’s been over 50 years since those days and much has changed. Due to numerous circumstances too complicated to hash out here, the Washington Park community went from thriving to dying. Crime, drugs and failing schools made headlines. The once thriving neighborhood was wilting away. Decades passed and businesses closed.  Boarded up buildings and homes lined what was once a bustling street. 

West Montgomery, and more specifically Washington Park, became a place not just anyone would go, much less move their young family. But Bryan (above left) and Delta Kelly, along with Kevin (above right) and Nicole King, saw Washington Park as fertile ground for a work only God could do. In 2006, they moved into the neighborhood and began to lay the foundation for what is now Common Ground Montgomery (CGM).

 

“The vision for CGM is to see the Washington Park/Gibbs Village community transformed into a healthy, thriving and nurturing community for our neighbors, that is led by, and produces, thriving and sustainable leaders of families, neighborhoods and our city,” says executive director, Bryan Kelly. The current context for CGM is a distressed and under-resourced neighborhood plagued by epidemic rates of teenage pregnancy, high school drop outs, fatherless households, drug addiction, joblessness, gang and domestic violence, prostitution, generational poverty and government dependence. Simply put, it’s the perfect place for a group of like-minded and committed people with a heart for the kingdom of God to see Him do the impossible.

 

D.G. Markwell, the board chairman for CGM, says he believes Common Ground is the biblical answer to neighborhood decay. “After six years in the Washington Park neighborhood, we are seeing real tangible fruit of lives changed, relationships restored, and children nurtured through the loving outreach of our staff, after school tutoring program and exposure to healthy life choices,” D.G. says. “Common Ground shows that when you take a biblical approach to “wholeness” and when the body of Christ is intentional and willing to do it God’s way, great things can happen to a neighborhood.”

 

Common Ground Montgomery’s mission is, “to create a safe haven of love and grace along with structure and discipline for the children of the community when they are most vulnerable to the destructive influences of the streets of West Montgomery.” They concentrate on investing in the youth by focusing on what Bryan and Kevin term “holistic development.” This is accomplished in three main ways that, after six years, are proving to result in lives changed and new pathways forward for the kids and families of the Washington Park and Gibbs Village community.

 

 

Life on Life

The CGM staff, with assistance from godly neighbors, is devoted to “life on life” training of the youth.  The main way the staff accomplishes this is by actually living in the neighborhood they serve.

 

While the staff realizes they are not the “Saviors” of the community, a handful of them choose to live in the community because, as Kevin says, it gives them a chance to physically become a neighbor and love people in a way they normally would not be able to if they drove into the neighborhood and left at five o’clock every night.

 

“Living in Washington Park isn’t a mandate, but a calling,” says Kevin.  “We saw a time when most who could afford to get out of the neighborhood did just that.  Not only did the people in the neighborhood leave, but so did some of the churches.  Some saw the neighborhood demographic change and deemed this place dying, dangerous and probably God forsaken and pulled out over the years. We had an opportunity to move here, become neighbors and choose not to run away because we believe God’s Spirit lives within us and he wants his followers here. We are able to be a part of an investment that will touch hearts and open eyes, plus experience Jesus’ love and compassion in ways that constantly change the lives of the staff and also our neighbors.”

 

Opening up their homes to the neighborhood kids and training them through biblically-based discipleship relationships that last is at the heart of the ministry. The practical ways this is carried out is by creating a “safe haven” to walk alongside the kids and their families. Letting them know they are safe and treating them with the dignity the staff at CGM believes they deserve, trust is earned as these relationships maintain a consistency rooted in their core values of love and grace.

 

 

Relationship-Based Programs

Relationship-based programs that focus on character, social and life skills development in the areas of academics, art, sports and entrepreneurship are the backbone of CGM.

 

These programs are important because they provide a safe place for the neighborhood youth to escape some of the negative influences in the community. “Some may think everything that encompasses our community outside of Common Ground is negative,” says Kevin, who serves as Program Director, “but this is far from the truth.” Thankfully, God has the staff of CGM working alongside other neighbors who want to see God’s Kingdom lived out in the community, too. It’s with the combined efforts of neighbors, families, and staff these programs are possible.

 

The After School Program

With two out of three of the schools kids in the Washington Park neighborhood attend on the latest Montgomery County failing schools list, the After School Program is seeking to continue to create an environment where accountability and motivation are at the core, as well as supporting the public schools in the neighborhood. The 100+ kids, eight teachers and staff work together to focus on academics, Bible and electives like basketball, gymnastics and guitar.

 

“We see kids throughout the week and summer,” explains Dr. Leslie Cowell, who oversees the academic portion of the program. “In the coming year, we hope to gain permission from the parents to access student’s grades and have direct communication with their teachers. This will allow us to hold the students accountable for their school work, as well as provide motivation.”

 

 

Urban SEED Xchange

Headed up by Josh Conley, Urban SEED Xchange is a relationship-based entrepreneur and mentorship program that focuses on character, social and life skills development for a select group of high school students from the neighborhood. USX stands as its own non-profit under the umbrella of CGM. Business education, interpersonal skills, graphic design, financial literacy and hands-on job training through their t-shirt business is at the heart of this program. Josh and the USX staff desire to create opportunities for high school youth to use their gifts and abilities in a way that benefits their community and makes a positive impact in the lives of others.

 

 

House 2 House

House 2 House, which is also it’s own non-profit under the larger umbrella of CGM, is a mentoring ministry that focuses on redeveloping homes in the Washington Park neighborhood for families of the youth of CGM. Headed up by Mike Bunce, the mission of H2H is to partner with CGM to transform Washington Park by building up families through intentional Christian discipleship which comes from living in Christian community and participating in many forms of neighborhood redevelopment. Meeting the core need for better housing is the means to which they work to accomplish this end.

 

 

Mentor Relationships

The third way CGM focuses on “holistic development” is through mentor relationships. The goal is to connect the youth of CGM with a loving Christian mentor from across the city. These relationships prove to be mutually beneficial and encouraging and start when the child is in the fourth grade and continue through high school graduation. The mentoring program is just another layer to the mission of CGM that shows the youth another way to do life and further provides a support structure that can guide them through the complexities of adolescence and high school.

 

While all of these programs are making a huge impact on the lives of the kids and their families, they are only effective due to a loving staff, plethora of volunteers, neighbors and mentors who have chosen to invest and build meaningful relationships. “High school students who we’ve know since they were in elementary school back when they repeated Bible stories that were taught to them are now trying to figure out life and how to exist in a culture where appearance and social status matters,” says Kevin. Bryan and Kevin along with the staff have had the opportunity to see students from elementary to high school surrender their lives to Jesus and choose to stay away from the streets, ask the hard questions and become transparent and display an unashamed authenticity as they wrestle with reflecting the image of Christ to their community and beyond.

 

The programs extend far beyond any programs they could ever create, says Kevin. “We’ve been recipients of God’s grace as he has shown His love through being served and encouraged by many families in this community. Everything isn’t perfect by any means, but we are convinced that God’s love and heart resides in this community.”

 

 

Be a Part of the Story

There is a story God is writing in the city of Montgomery, and this story includes the Washington Park community and many other under-resourced areas in our city. While there are many ways to be involved, the heart of the staff is that true, real, life-changing relationships will be forged that show our city a picture of the gospel of grace and reconciliation.

 

You can gather your friends, small group or business to be involved in mentoring, volunteering and building relationships with the youth and their families and discover a life-changing experience that will effect more than you expected.  There are many ways to be involved, but the areas below are the most needed:

 

• Support a child through providing a scholarship to one or more of our 100 + kids to cover the expense of the program for a year.

 

• Tutor with the After School Program.

 

• Mentor a parent of our youth through House 2 House.

 

• Sponsor a home through House 2 House.

 

• Have your business be a part of training and mentoring kids through Urban SEED Xchange.

 

• Bring your small group to spend a weekend with CGM serving in the community.

 

• Give monthly to support the far-reaching work of CGM.

 

• For a complete list of volunteer opportunities contact Delta Kelly at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or visit the website at cgmlife.org.

 

Rachel Fisher loves learning what God is doing around her and writing about it. She and her husband, Chase, live in Montgomery.

 

**Photography by Lori Mercer.

Last modified on Saturday, 03 August 2013 12:33
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