Three years ago a handful of homeschool moms decided they wanted to do something with their children to reach out to the community. A suggestion was made to offer snacks, games and a Bible lesson to children living in the Gonzales Gardens Housing Community on Forest Drive across from Providence Hospital. The moms showed up to their open field one spring day, pulled out some snacks and outdoor games, and a swarm of children descended into the field. Children of different races played, sang songs, listened to a Bible story, and began to know, understand and care for one another.
As the effort continued through the spring and into the summer, Michelle James – who was homeschooling both of her boys at the time – began to participate. She says it was the first time she truly got her hands dirty in ministry. “We’ve always been very supportive of missions; however, I really felt that only certain people were called to be missionaries. I began to realize that God calls us all in some way. Writing a check is not enough.”
Michelle is no stranger to being involved. The former ballet dancer was an Alpha Delta Pi sorority sister at U.S.C. She is politically involved, has tutored privately and has been a Bible teacher. She soon realized a greater opportunity than what was informally referred to as a “field ministry.” Despite the fact that these children live in a community where drug and alcohol use is prevalent and gangs are simply a way of life, she saw hope.
Then one day she witnessed a true miracle. “I promised the kids I would get them backpacks with supplies before they started school. I asked for donations, but when the day came, I still didn’t have enough. Some kids were standing there in tears. Suddenly, a woman pulled up, and the whole back of her car was filled with backpacks and school supplies. Another man who was involved in the field ministry had told her weeks earlier about the need. She was in Wal-Mart earlier in the day and suddenly remembered. So she brought them down to the Gardens not even realizing that it was the day and time that I was distributing them. She just took a chance. She brought so much that we ended up having supplies left over.”
When it was all over, Michelle said Rhett, her youngest son, turned to her and reminded her about the lesson from the Bible that they had taught the children the week prior: “Mom, this is just like the story about the fish and the loaves.”
Michelle says, “I realized right then that God had performed a miracle. I knew deep down in my heart that these were the people I was called to serve.”
By the fall, she had mapped out a plan to tutor elementary and middle school students. She secured a building next to the vacant field, contacted parents, rounded up volunteers and began a tutoring program. The verse from Jeremiah 29:11 – “I have plans to prosper you, to give you a hope and a future, and not to harm you” – became the fledgling ministry’s mantra. From that verse grew the name: Prosperity Project. Michelle says, “God desires us to live a prosperous life, not necessarily financially, but definitely spiritually.”
Not Without Trials
“At first, I felt like I was very ill-equipped because I had never done anything like this before,” says Michelle. “I was very stretched out, and I wondered why God chose me.”
A typical day during that first year of tutoring looked like this: Upwards of 12 elementary and middle school students would crowd into a cramped space. Many were fresh from fights on the school bus; middle school students were sometimes foul-mouthed and demanding. Michelle remembers one time she was on the floor weeping by the time the day ended. Often, she felt like quitting. But when she cancelled tutoring due to bad behavior or suspended a student from a day of tutoring, students – and sometimes parents – would show up and convey remorse. Once, when a first grader was suspended for a day, the volunteers opened the door at the end of the tutoring session to find the boy had been sitting quietly on the door step the whole time. He promised to behave so he could come the next time.
“I realized I would have low points, but God is faithful, and this is where he wanted me to be,” says Michelle.
In early 2011, Michelle approached Christ Central Ministries to glean guidance. “Their philosophy is that we need to give a hand up, not a hand out. We believe that it is our job to help people in this community fix their problems, but not fix their problems for them,” says Michelle. She says a main goal is to give those involved in the program the tools and the empowerment that will equip them to be a productive, responsible and morally strong next generation.
In February 2011, Prosperity Project officially became one of Christ Central’s mission stations. The 38 Christ Central mission stations, mostly in South Carolina and some in North Carolina, offer a variety of services such as after-school, GED training and recovery. For Prosperity Project, which operates as a separate entity under the direction of Michelle and an advisory board, Christ Central provides training and the opportunity to get together with other mission stations and learn from them. “They’re really like a supportive family,” says Michelle.
Still, with Christ Central alongside, challenges ensued. For the first two years, Prosperity Project had to move to several different locations. In October 2011, the Columbia Housing Authority granted Prosperity Project one of the apartments in Gonzales Gardens. In an 800-square-foot, two-story apartment, the ministry managed to tutor 18 students with a 94 percent attendance rate using eight to 10 volunteers at any given time. During worship time, sometimes 30 bodies converged in a space that was approximately 100 square feet.
Perseverance Pays Off
Michelle realized early on that she must persevere. She learned that ministries and special programs were here-today-gone-tomorrow in Gonzales Gardens. “People give up on that community easily. There hasn’t been any consistency in these children’s lives.”
Through word of mouth, persistence, meetings with city leaders and an open house, interest and support of Prosperity Project increased. One of the ministry’s strongest supporters has been South Carolina U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles.
And late last summer, Friendship Baptist Church, an established African American church situated behind Gonzales Gardens, agreed to provide its classrooms, fellowship hall and gym on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for a nominal rental fee. “They were beginning to seek out ways to reach the community while I was seeking out a different space, since we were so cramped in that apartment. It was a perfect fit, and we’re grateful for Friendship,” explains Michelle.
Grants, as well as donations from businesses and individuals, pay for supplies, food, tablets, computers, transportation (whenever there is a field trip) and other miscellaneous expenses. In 2012, donations totaled around $20,000, while expenses were around $15,000. Prosperity Project is currently seeking out sponsorships to send up to 15 kids to summer camp. Last year, a few students were able to spend a week at a North Carolina mountain camp, and for most, it was their first time out of South Carolina and the first time ever seeing the mountains. “They’ve been asking about going for months,” says Michelle. “We’re hoping to get all 15 of our kids sponsored.”
Prosperity Project has grown since its beginnings in that field. There are currently around 40 active tutors – teenagers and adults – and 28 elementary school-aged students. Prosperity Project also has a handful of students involved in a pilot mentoring program for middle schoolers as it was determined that age group is more productive one-on-one.
Some of the team members, or volunteers, include retired as well as active teachers, a retired Ph.D. in music, a law student, an artist, an occupational therapist, a television anchorwoman and many others from various walks of life, and there continue to be homeschool moms who have dedicated themselves to the ministry. Recently, a captain at the Columbia Police Department committed to sending officers out weekly to speak to the students.
“Prior to finding Prosperity Project, I was selfish with my time,” admits Tripp Rush, a 26-year-old student at the U.S.C. School of Law. “The opportunity to tutor and mentor through Prosperity Project is a constant reminder of the need to live a Christian life.”
Betty Kaneft, 79, describes Prosperity Project as an “oasis of hope and security in the midst of single-parent families living marginally risky, sometimes fearful lives.” She volunteers with her husband, Jack, 84, and adds: “Our own children encourage us to spend our retirement years traveling, and looking for adventure and entertainment. But there is more adventure and satisfaction to be found in the company of these children, watching them grow and learn, seeing their values changing as they are exposed to Biblical truths and the dedicated leaders at Prosperity Project. The children pay us with hugs and love and hope in their futures. We look forward each week to our time with them.”
Jack notices another dimension of the ministry – the valuable training in leadership and the compassion that the teenagers gain by volunteering.
Michelle says, “If you surround yourself with a good team, things work well. Prosperity Project is life-changing for the students and their families. The work that we’re doing is effective.”
Michelle’s long-term goal is to see a school grow from the tutoring program. This fall, she hopes to launch a pilot pre-school program and then see where the Lord takes it from there.
She admits it is a day-by-day process – for her and for those who volunteer their time. “For me, that first miracle is what keeps me going. When I look at where we were a short time ago … wow. We were operating in a field. I can see what He’s doing … giving a hope and a future to these children.”
For more information on Prosperity Project, visit www.prosperityprojectsc.org.