Transforming and expanding

Photos courtesy of Project Transformation Dallas

Photos courtesy of Project Transformation Dallas

Project Transformation is a literacy and youth development program that has successfully expanded to three states. The key is maintaining the program’s core strengths while allowing flexibility, leaders say.

At first, Courtney Aldrich did everything she could to ignore the whisper. She was just going to spend a few summers in a “cute little program for kids,” she thought; there was no way starting a ministry in her early 20s was part of her five-year plan.

And yet working with Project Transformation Dallas opened Aldrich’s eyes and heart to poverty, diversity, community, joy and the impact of the church in fresh ways.

So when that whisper persisted -- a calling to replicate the successful literacy and youth development program in her hometown of Nashville -- she couldn’t just wave it away. Especially when the Texas leadership, not knowing what she’d been holding close to her heart, brought it up out of the blue.

“Now I’m in a constant state of celebration and amazement,” said Aldrich, who today is executive director of Project Transformation Tennessee. She’s on the verge of finishing up her first Nashville summer, during which 25 college-age young adults served more than 200 children at three Nashville sites with the support of more than 500 volunteers.

Renewed life

On a recent morning, Aldrich headed over to Nancy Webb Kelly United Methodist Church, one of the three Nashville sites to debut the Project Transformation Tennessee program this summer.

The group had just finished the “harambee,” a high-energy activity named for the Swahili term for coming together. Afterward, some of the children moved into a recreation area outside. Some began making pink and purple construction-paper get-well cards for a young adult leader. And still others settled into quiet spots for one-on-one reading with adult volunteers.

A bookshelf on a nearby wall displayed rows and rows of books marked according to reading level, offering opportunities for encouragement, assessment and positive role model interaction.

Project Transformation’s summer literacy program was an easy fit with Nancy Webb Kelly UMC. The church recognized it as more than just an opportunity to give the area kids something to do; it also offered the congregation a chance to expand its long-standing outreach to local families.

Near a large public housing development, Nancy Webb Kelly UMC operates a day shelter for the homeless, after-school programs, and a food ministry that serves about 40,000 plates each year.

The Rev. Pat Freudenthal, executive director of the church’s Community Care Fellowship -- and a former schoolteacher -- was an early proponent of bringing the PT program to Tennessee. “This is a way for us to positively affect children’s lives so they don’t end up in my [food ministry] dining room as adults,” she said.

The program as a whole has brought renewed energy and life to the church, Freudenthal said. The young adult interns -- some local residents and some who will go home to other states at summer’s end -- have made an impression on her and the neighborhood.

“They’re phenomenal young men and women of God, and their faithfulness and commitment to Christ is both overwhelming and humbling to witness,” she said. “To see them give their heart and soul to this neighborhood has been a blessing. … The way they pour themselves out for these kids every day reminds me of broken bread and poured-out wine. We’ll be struggling to say goodbye.”

Expanding the reach

Project Transformation began in 1998 as a United Methodist-based ministry in North Texas. Since its founding, it has been grounded in three C’s: children, college students and churches.

In a typical Project Transformation Texas summer, more than 900 children and youth -- 90 percent of them qualifying for free or reduced-price meals in public schools -- participate in the eight-week summer program. They receive one-on-one reading time with more than 1,500 volunteers, all under the guidance of 100 young adult interns such as Aldrich.

Since its founding, close to 800 young adults have served -- representing 35 states and eight foreign countries -- and 10 have come up through the ranks as children of the program.

With such success under its belt, then, it only made sense that those involved would want to expand its reach. It happened first in Oklahoma, when a couple of former Texas interns shared the idea with leaders of the Oklahoma Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in early 2002. The inaugural camp was held that June, and the program has since grown to eight sites statewide.

The year after, another offshoot followed in Charlottesville, Va., followed by one in Kansas City, Mo., in 2007. Each lasted more than one summer, but for various reasons, said Project Transformation Texas executive director Eric Lindh, those programs have since closed.

These experiences led to board discussions back in Texas about how Project Transformation could establish a steadier plan for replication, and a better understanding of why some chapters had succeeded while others hadn’t.

They are working on a guidebook -- the Tennessee ministry served as the “guinea pig” for an early version -- and the organization has unified its various programs’ websites. They’ve also discussed changes to the Texas leadership that would improve oversight of programs in other regions.

“We really felt it was not only an opportunity but our responsibility to do all we could to make sure our model of replication was sustainable, holding on to the same values and keeping the integrity and culture of the organization strong as it started in a new place,” Lindh said.

Project Transformation leadership has recognized the need for a better balance between establishing core strengths and incorporating flexibility in new sites, allowing significant time for counsel from the founding office yet also encouraging the new ministries to garner their own strong community support.

Oklahoma and Tennessee have done well, Lindh said, because each was started by people who could convey the “original DNA” from the founding organization. But the other key piece, he said, is a high degree of ownership, investment and buy-in from the local UMC conference.

“For us, it’s been a process,” he said. “But this whole thing started because there were … individuals who took a risk. … That’s what this is: trying something new. Seeing a need, finding the resources that are in place and jumping in.”

Aldrich, for her part, has jumped in as well.

“This was not part of my plan,” she said. “But I learned that this was God’s plan.”