A Mennonite church ministry that mentors and evangelizes to children from inner-city Elkhart neighborhoods is eyeing a bigger building that would let it reach more children.
Cornerstone Ministries, based at Sandy Ridge Mennonite Church in Marshall County, has run a weekly program called “Wednesday Night Club,” from a small building at 411 Brady St. for more than a decade. Two years ago the group started talking with city officials about their desire to expand the center, but ultimately realized it wasn’t feasible because of a lack of parking, said Cornerstone Ministries board chairman Ryan Miller.
At the Elkhart Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Thursday night, the group won unanimous approval a zoning variance to operate the youth center in a building it is buying at 1332 W. Indiana Ave. The building, which once housed physician’s offices, is zoned for residential use.
The new facility will quadruple the center’s space from 3,000 square feet to about 12,000 square feet, enabling the center to serve about 150 children rather than the 75 to 100 now served.
"There’s always a waiting list,“ Miller said. ”We have to tell them, ’no’ all the time.”
Miller hopes to have the new place open by August.
The program buses children from throughout Elkhart each week to the Brady Street site.
The project initially was expected to cost $225,000. The Elkhart County Community Foundation in December gave the charity $25,000, and the church raised the rest itself from August through March. Board members sent emails to area businesses and other local churches made donations.
Then the property owner lowered the price to $145,000. The church had raised $140,000, and the $25,000 grant will help to renovate the interior.
Miller said it wasn’t difficult to convince donors of the need.
“We had brochure cards we passed out telling them about the needs and the hurting families with no fathers present. You go into all these homes and there’s almost never a dad there. It’s weird to open the door and see a male figure there, because it’s always a mom and six kids. It’s sad.”
In addition to Wednesday Night Club, volunteer mentors are paired with children. Parents sign waivers allowing volunteers to pick up their children and take them on outings, similar to how the Big Brothers Big Sisters program works.
Miller mentors a 13-year-old boy named Brian. He brings him out to his rural home where they enjoy activities such as riding four-wheelers, horseback riding and camping.
Volunteers must sign an affidavit saying they have no criminal background.
"Somebody that walks in off the street that nobody knows at all, and they weren’t referenced by anybody, we would do a little more background on them for sure. We have had a few of them checked out and there’s been issues there. But usually if Bob says, 'Hey, this is a guy I work with, I’ve known him for 25 years, good family guy,’ he fills out paperwork and signs off, we trust that.“
Miller said Wednesday Night Club is a mix of religious education and counseling.
”The Bible, absolutely,“ he said. ”We don’t shy away from that at all, but also just life stuff. Life lessons. Some of the older girls, the 13-, 14-year-old girls, they’re doing a cooking class for them. If there’s an issue with a kid, one of the directors will take him out and say, 'what’s going on?’ 'Well my dad just left.’ So we’re dealing with them and their lives a lot. If there’s a problem during the week, we’re the ones they’ll call. I just got kicked out of school, what do I do?”
Miller was asked how he measures success.
"That’s a tough question,“ he said after a long pause. ”We’re convinced that God’s power is pretty great and he has changed these kids’ lives. We’ve had pretty good success stories as well, kids that are doing a lot better than the direction they were heading on. We have one girl that’s actually, she’s 18 or 19 now, she graduated and we got her into a Christian private school that she just did a lot better in. She’s probably our best success story. She graduated from high school, which is a big deal for us, and is going to college in Virginia now to be a social services worker. She wants to come back to Elkhart and plug herself back into the area.“
He noted there are also plenty of kids who don’t turn out well. Mentors and teachers occasionally receive calls from kids after they have been arrested.
“It happens. But I dare believe that we’re curbing a lot of that just by being mentors and God’s power. There’s a lot of the Bible but there’s also a lot of common sense stuff that we’re telling them. Stop messing with drugs. Stop getting pregnant when you’re 13. We have girls that have quit here at 12 and 13 because they’re pregnant. It happens all the time.”
Miller said there are five church members who have moved from their homes in rural Nappanee or Bremen and bought homes in the city to be near the kids.
"They’ve changed their jobs,“ he said. ”It’s happened in the last year. That’s why the building has happened. It’s a big deal.“
Lloyd Mast recently moved his wife and son from Milford, in rural Kosciousko County, to a house in the 400 block of West Wolf Avenue.
"It’s different than missionary work and yet it’s a life calling that God has placed upon our lives,” Mast said. “We go about our daily life but we’re there for the children. Now that school’s out we’ll probably be seeing them at the house more. They drop by on a Saturday afternoon and we’ll play soccer, fire up the grill and cook some hot dogs. We plant the seed and hope it produces and brings forth.”