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Community Renewal goes international

Agency to be honored with award

By Diane Haag
The (Shreveport) Times

Mack McCarter never wanted Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal to stay in Shreveport-Bossier City.

"I always had in mind to build a prototype that could be replicated in cities across the nation and the world."

Since founding the organization in 1994, he has preached about the transforming power of caring to anyone who will listen.

On Sunday, McCarter will have his biggest audience. Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal will receive the Omar N. Bradley Spirit of Independence Award during halftime at the Independence Bowl, which also includes ad spots on ESPN. The game begins at 7 p.m., with Alabama and Colorado facing off.

The award and attention comes just as the organization prepares for another major expansion. On Tuesday, the organization will change its name to Community Renewal International to better reflect its ever-expanding mission and prepare for a massive fundraising effort in the spring.

"It doesn't help to change one city and not all cities," McCarter said. "We're getting a large tent because we have large ideas."

Creating community renewal

Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal began when McCarter returned to his hometown of Shreveport in the early 1990s. It was immediately apparent the city had changed, and not always for good.

Neighborhood decline and a lack of relationships seemed to be the roots of the problem, so he developed a three-prong approach to rebuilding those connections.

First, McCarter asked people to commit to doing their own individual acts of love as part of the We Care team. Then he organized people on a block level, training Haven House leaders to systematically introduce neighbors to each other.

The final and most intense piece of the model are Friendship Houses. These houses in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods are home to Community Renewal staff members and provide a community center for the neighborhood.

"There's nothing magic about the concept," said board member John Dalton, a former secretary of the U.S. Navy. "The attitude of caring and loving your neighbor improves neighborhoods and quality of life for everyone."

It sounds almost too logical and too simple, but Sandra Simpson can attest to the work it takes to create caring communities. She moved into the first Friendship House in 1997.

Located in the Highland neighborhood, Simpson volunteered at Creswell Elementary School and went door to door trying to help people with their immediate physical needs.

"The real thing they need is people to come alongside them and walk with them. We don't come in and then go home to our nice suburban lifestyle."

An average of 34 children gather in Simpson's back room after school each day for Kids' Club, which includes games, Bible lessons and help with homework.

Fifth-grader Queiarrah Brown said she would have nothing to do if she went right home after school. She encouraged other kids to join the club.

"It's better coming here. They can learn about God, stay off the streets and play with their friends and do homework."

Simpson has helped nearly 400 children like Quiearrah and sees Highland becoming a friendlier, more active neighborhood than it was.

Community Renewal built a Friendship House in Cedar Grove in 1998 and since has added Allendale, Barksdale Annex and Queensborough. Those neighborhoods report decreases in litter and crime and increases in self-image and educational opportunities.

"It works because people really do care," Dalton said. "People want to have quality neighborhoods and want their neighbors to be happy and successful. And they want to reach out to people having difficulties."

Through it all, nothing has changed with the core principles. If neighbors aren't receptive, Community Renewal staffers - who quickly learn patience and perseverance - just keep caring.

"If we stay dedicated, we can move mountains of racism, poverty, ignorance," McCarter said.

Spreading community renewal

As the concept spread through Shreveport, other cities started to take notice. Community leaders from Abilene, Texas, to the African nation of Cameroon have started their own versions.

In 2001, the organization acquired the 16-story Petroleum Tower in downtown Shreveport. There, McCarter plans to locate the National Center for Community Renewal. The center would house and train people from all over the world who want to learn more about the model.

"What happens here can change the world."

To make the center a reality, McCarter pulled together an impressive list of business and government leaders to form a national board.

Shreveporter Larry Faulkner, a former president of the University of Texas, joined the board and endorsed the program when he saw how it could be spread to other cities. Now head of the Houston Endowment, he sees many initiatives that may be good but can't be replicated.

"Many models can be successful, but they depend on the energy of the founder. This is based on a concept that doesn't require heroism from a single individual."

Kirk Lyman-Barner, director of partner development with the Fuller Center for Housing, is ready to send his new chapter executives to Shreveport to receive training. He hopes they can learn to build community along with housing.

"They're a wonderful model that takes a holistic approach that looks at all we need to make housing a success."

The Fuller Center has worked with Community Renewal to build 33 houses and refurbish five others in Shreveport's Allendale neighborhood in two years.

The systematic approach to building relationships block by block and developing community leadership from within is what makes McCarter's plan so successful, Lyman-Barner said.

"It's overwhelming to walk through Allendale and see groomed lawns and children playing in what was a desolate, barren, unsafe, scary place."

Future renewal

Fundraising to renovate the Petroleum Tower and create the national center officially will begin in March. Dalton, who is leading the campaign, has spent the past nine months pulling together brochures and researching possible donors. Community Renewal has a goal of $70 million, which could come from government grants, foundations, corporations and individuals.

"It's a matter of telling the story, and it's a good story with a proven track record," Dalton said.

McCarter's only rule is that the money should come from national sources. "Shreveport-Bossier needs to help the local model. The nation needs to pay for the national center."

The local mission is still at the top of McCarter's mind. In the next few years, he expects to see completion of the 10th Friendship House and a total of 1,000 Haven Houses and 25,000 members of the Community Renewal team. The greatest need is funding and participation.

McCarter admits it can be hard to sell an idea, but he has committed his life to spreading this message. "This is truly a revolutionary idea. Our goal is to unite everyone through friendship."

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