An insider’s look at one of Lakeland’s most impacting outreaches
Section editor Brooklyn Lindsey • Guest writer Trish Hogan • Photography by Tina Sargeant
The first time I met Tim Mitchell, executive director of Parker Street Ministries, we were in a crowded meeting room at Jesse Keen Elementary School. The school’s principal had
invited church leaders, organizational leaders, and other members of the community who she thought might be interested in reaching out to the students in her care.
I remember Tim distinctly. As he spoke, I wanted to write down the things he was saying. I couldn’t help but say “yes” out loud with every observation he made, as the principal discussed the student population and some of the challenges they were facing.
Later I learned that there was some serious weight behind his words. That he and his family had moved into the neighborhood where they focused their outreach. And that there was a
vibrant ministry in the heart of our city because of this focused passion.
For a long time I’ve wanted to know their story — the “why they do what they do when they do it” types of things that make Parker Street Ministries (PSM) what it is today.
As I began investigating, I felt that this story would be more insightful if it were told by someone on the inside. And I knew just the person. Her name is Trish Hogan.
As a parent of five daughters who all still live at home, Trish is busy. But that has never kept her from being involved in church ministry, outreach, writing, and serving others. And this
year she took a job as an after-school classroom leader at Parker Street Ministries where she had previously volunteered.
I asked her to help me write this story as someone from the inside looking out, someone who experiences the impact of Parker Street first hand.
My journey with Parker Street Ministries began in the fall of 2011. As a homeschooling parent, I’m always looking for ways that my kids and I can serve together. Service is one of the
core beliefs of our school. My searching led me to the PSM website. Their Mission Statement says, “Parker Street Ministries, Inc. is a Christ-centered non-profit 501c3 organization committed to individual, family and community restoration, reconciliation, and revitalization beginning in Lakeland’s Parker Street Community.”
I contacted the volunteer coordinator, and the following week four of us were serving in the afterschool program. I ended up in the thirdgrade classroom with my daughter, Brianna. We
were immediately welcomed by the classroom leader, Tara Campbell, and several eager students. Once a week soon became twice a week, and before long we were hooked.
Summer of 2012 found me with only two daughters left to teach at home and a hunger in my heart for something more. I wanted to work part-time but I wanted to do something
meaningful, not just bring home a paycheck. I knew that Parker Street had two vacant teaching positions so, on a whim, I sent an email to Christina Allen, director of the Academic Enrichment Program. I had worked in daycare and afterschool programs before, but I knew that what they were doing at PSM was so much more than babysitting. It’s not common for volunteers to be hired as staff, but Christina expressed interest in interviewing me, and within weeks not only was I on staff, but my oldest daughter, Savannah, was hired as well.
I found out that I would be leading the same group of students that I had volunteered with the previous year. Feeling completely motivated and terrified at the same time, I started my new job. I had no experience working in an urban environment and at times felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and inadequacy. I had raised my kids in a mostly white neighborhood, attended a mostly white church, and now I was working with predominantly black, biracial, and Hispanic children who were dealing with situations my own children could not even imagine. My director and co-workers were a constant source of wisdom and encouragement. Tara sent me a card reminding me to be persistent and consistent.
It became my mantra.
Persistent and consistent.
Persistent and consistent.
It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with over one hundred kids. I began to learn names and nicknames, appreciate diverse personalities, and realize that basically kids are kids regardless of where they live. They need boundaries, direction, discipline, and, above all, unconditional love. My heart is captured, and it feels like more than a job — it’s family.
Please allow me to introduce you to some people who take the call to love humanity to a whole new level. They are people I admire, respect, and am honored to work with. They are people of faith, vision, and energy. They are the people who moved into a forgotten, broken neighborhood, reaching out as friends, bringing encouragement and hope. Parker Street Ministries is about knocking down walls and building bridges, promoting community pride and restoration. It goes beyond race, religion, and social status to see individuals, not statistics.
GETTING TO KNOW TIM MITCHELL (Executive Director)
Meeting Tim Mitchell for the first time, you would never guess he’s the director of a large urban ministry. His long, blonde ponytail, slow drawl, and hunting trophies reveal his Arkansas roots. He doesn’t play basketball or listen to rap music, so how in the world does he fit into this urban neighborhood? It’s simple; he doesn’t try to fit in. He just loves people, whoever they are and wherever they are. He treats the wealthy entrepreneur and the homeless man the same, with respect and interest. He’s committed to leading an initiative to bring hope, healing, and restoration to a group of people on the verge of giving up. He’s passionately devoted to bringing them a vision and a reality of a healthy, functioning community.
Tim grew up in a racially divided town. There were very clear lines of separation that were not to be crossed. His family was an anomaly. They chose to see and appreciate the diversity in their community. They practiced “neighboring” by inviting the entire high school baseball team to a pool party, not excluding any boys based on race. This caused friction with their town but didn’t keep them from opening their home to everyone. It was not unusual for Tim to give up his room for a period of time to a runaway teen or homeless man. The Mitchell home was a haven for broken people to breathe until they were able to pick up the pieces and move on. Tim grew up thinking this was how families were supposed to function, and it stuck.
Arriving in Lakeland as an idealistic 19-year-old in 1997, Tim had no intention of staying long term. He connected with a small ministry called the Parker Street Project and decided to learn from them and maybe start a similar initiative elsewhere. Five years later he was offered the unenviable position of executive director of the struggling organization. With no financial backing, no salary, and only one board member, Tim accepted his new role. By this time he was deeply invested personally in the Parker Street neighborhood. He had grown up there and formed many close friendships with the residents.
In 2000, Tim married Christy, who had previously lived in the neighborhood. They were not about to abandon these fragile relationships. Instead they allowed themselves to live in a “glass house,” exposing themselves, their marriage, and their failures to their neighbors. They worked through the challenges of being newly married with their newly married neighbors. They became an integral part of their community. Tim shares a story of trying to convince some concerned middle school boys that he was, indeed, content to be with “just one woman” for the rest of his life. Every moment became an opportunity to love, encourage, teach, and do life together.
Tim is a visionary with a strong practical streak. He looks toward the future, but his feet are firmly planted in the difficult, often frustrating, present. He hopes for what he knows can happen while working to make things just a little better right now. Tim is a legal advocate, marriage counselor, foster parent, and role model. His job is self-defined as “we just need to be available.” That description doesn’t allow for 9:00-5:00 clock punching or very many quiet evenings at home. It does allow for phone calls at 3:00 a.m. because a teen is missing or an addicted dad is becoming violent. It may involve taking in someone’s kids while desperate moms or grandmas seek safe housing. In the early years of PSM, it sometimes meant eating rice and beans for a few days because you cleaned out the pantry to feed a family. Whatever the cost, the Mitchells pay it with their lives because they have a vision of hope for their neighborhood.
Tim and Christy are just one example of several families and individuals who have become “intentional residents.” These are the people who have chosen to move into a marginalized neighborhood and call it home. They are eschewing gated communities, country clubs, and cultural norms for the idea of belonging to something revolutionary; the idea that friendship can cross the boundaries of race, religion, and economic status. Neighbors helping each other care for kids, crying together when things fall apart, celebrating graduations and weddings. This is the definition of community.
DISCOVERING CHRISTINA ALLEN (Director of the Academic Enrichment Program)
Christina Allen graduated from Florida Southern College with a degree in elementary education. Before coming on staff at Parker Street Ministries, she taught in the public school system. Christina loved teaching but was looking for opportunities to combine teaching with her deep Christian faith. Newly married, she and her husband, Greg, searched for a
church where they could connect.
At Trinity Presbyterian in Lakeland, they met Tim and Christy Mitchell, who introduced them to Parker Street Ministries. While Christina and Greg worked full time, they also began serving in the after-school program which consisted of two small rooms, ten to twelve kids, and one computer. The couple moved into the neighborhood in 2003. Their intent was to be emotional support for the Mitchells while helping out on a part-time basis as they were able.
In 2005, the Allens made the decision to try to live on one income so that Christina could volunteer full time. As an educator, she could implement tools that would increase the academic progress of the students. Christina went to Tim with the idea, unaware that a new grant would allow the ministry to hire a director for the academic program. She was hired and, within a short period, attendance increased to twenty and she was able to hire a part-time classroom leader. Goals were set and growth continued. Several years later, when the remodeling of the Family Life Center was completed and they moved into the new facilities, they were able to open up enrollment to the whole Parker Street community.
Christina’s goal was slow growth, eventually accommodating one hundred students at a ratio of ten students per classroom leader. In 2012 that goal was realized.
Over the years, Christina has been able to use STAR math and reading testing to create individual learning systems for each child. Testing takes place at least three times per year, with additional testing, if needed, to identify weakness in specific areas. Each student is expected to complete homework, Accelerated Reader reading, and math enrichment daily. Every classroom has access to computers for free time, homework, and extra academics. Students bring lists of items needed for projects, and Christina purchases them and makes sure the projects are completed. This January, the Academic Enrichment Program (AEP) was able to add a one-on-one tutoring program, supervised by a staff member, to help students in danger of being retained.
Christina’s biggest challenge has been forming relationships with the moms of her students. When she started at PSM, she was extremely comfortable with children but suffered from shyness when dealing with adults. She has managed to overcome her timidity and now speaks publically; guides tours; trains classroom leaders; and conferences with teachers, parents, and principals on a regular basis. She tells a story of coming across a young mother in the laundry room. The mom was trying to unload the washing machine while holding a squirmy baby. Christina offered to help, and now that baby is a third grader enrolled in the AEP.
Christina’s challenge has become her greatest fulfillment. She has gained trust, respect, and friendship from the many mothers she has partnered with over the years. She sees her role primarily as bridging the gap between school and mom, often acting as a mediator. She has established good relationships with teachers in several Lakeland schools and is recognized by staff and administrators when she steps onto campus.
As with her co-workers, Christina’s job doesn’t end at 6:00 p.m. She has opened her home to children for days or months, and she is involved in the lives of her neighbors: planning weddings, baby showers, hosting birthday parties, and being a listening ear. She has watched students grow up, seeing some successes as well as a few disappointments, but through everything, she holds out hope for the kids of her neighborhood.
Future goals of the AEP include focusing more and more on quality, adding tutors and college prep to the high school program, and helping teens prepare for ACT and SAT testing and college placement. The teens of Parker Street Ministries have access to the computer lab from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and then are encouraged to volunteer with the younger students in order to gain community service hours and develop leadership skills. The staff of PSM desires to see students break out of the cycle of poverty through education, spiritual development, and leadership training to become solid, productive citizens and leaders in society.
MEET THOMAS GAIGE (Neighborhood Revitalization)
Tom Gaige graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. A New York native, he worked as a project manager for an engineering firm in the United States and the Dominican Republic. He has owned a construction company and, in his spare time, writes for a construction industry magazine. He could be working anywhere doing any number of jobs, but he has chosen to make the Parker Street neighborhood his home.
Tom’s job description doesn’t contain the word “typical.” His days are as diverse as the people who live in his community. As an engineer and project manager, Tom lived on a strict schedule. Falling behind on a construction job meant money lost; time wasted could never be recovered.
Living and working in Parker Street meant changing his whole way of thinking. There is no schedule, only a loose idea of what should get accomplished every day. As Tom says, “People come before projects.” A drywall job might get postponed by a resident needing a ride to the dentist. Pulling wires for electrical might have to wait because someone is needed to pick up a student who missed the school bus. He has been known to fill in for teachers who have called in sick, and share playground duty when the staff is shorthanded. He’s part of a team of people who are dedicated to helping out however and wherever necessary.
Tom moved to Lakeland about two years ago after the housing market spiraled downward. He and his wife, Leo, and two daughters bought a house just a block behind Parker Street Ministries. He says it’s convenient when the building alarm goes off in the middle of the night. That exemplifies Tom’s attitude toward his job. He, like Tim, is available around the clock.
Tom’s passion is to beautify the neighborhood. Trimming bushes, clearing overgrown lots, and keeping garbage cleaned up promotes a kind of community pride that was missing several years ago. He works with homeowners to address code violations, helping residents keep their property value and live in safe housing. He also believes that responding to physical needs opens doors to share emotional and spiritual burdens as well. Temporary relief often leads to long-term relationships and restoration.
In addition to working on neighborhood houses, Tom is responsible for the daily maintenance of the Community Center and Family Life Center. Built in 1949, the Community Center has been beautifully restored, as has the Family Life Center, which houses the George W. Jenkins Gym, kitchen, and classrooms. Both are incredible testimonies to the support of the Lakeland community which funded the renovations. Tom’s responsibilities include keeping these buildings beautiful and functional, as well as ensuring that the computers in each classroom are running smoothly. Somehow, in his busy schedule, he also finds time to perform car maintenance for the students on staff who are far away from home.
Parker Street Ministries partners with groups such as Habitat for Humanity and the Keystone Challenge Fund. These groups promote homeownership, believing that homeowners can help stabilize a community. Tom dreams of someday putting together a financial training program that will teach basic money management, living debt free, and even planning for college. He believes the right curriculum, designed for low-income families, would radically change the situations that some of the residents find themselves in today. In the meantime, he does what he can to teach responsible spending habits and get potential homeowners connected to the right organizations.
Tom is currently revitalizing three neighborhood homes. He’s always in need of skilled and unskilled labor. He says that if a person is willing, he can be taught. Many of his volunteers come to him through the court system, men who can’t find avenues for community service hours elsewhere. Whether working off hours due the state, racking up hours for scholarships, or seeking a summer internship, volunteers are trained in a holistic approach to urban renewal — combining compassion, knowledge, and skill to help others experience a higher quality of life.
Perhaps the best way to personify Parker Street Ministries is to hear from the staff and volunteers themselves, essentially the heart of Parker Street.
Tara Campbell, an AEP teacher with a degree in studio art, says, “This is one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had. We aren’t just keeping the kids busy to keep them out of trouble. We’re enriching their lives. We’re helping them learn and grow not just academically but emotionally and socially as well.”
After three years at Parker Street, Tara has seen firsthand the heartbreaking circumstances of some of the students. She says, “I come back every day and work with the exact same students on the exact same issues, because I know that one day it’s going to click, and those are the absolute best days.”
Christa Cochran, an elementary education major at Southeastern University, started her career at Parker Street as a summer camp counselor. Her favorite part of PSM is “the holistic aspect of the ministry.” She loves working with people who “not only feel called to serve the people of this community, but to live among them as neighbors, friends, and family.” Christa says she has seen God at work in her life through the lives of her students, revealing to her the need of the human heart for unconditional love.
Katie Mauer, another SEU education major says, “There are many things I love about my job, but my favorite thing is that Parker Street isn’t just the hours of 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. for me. I am in constant contact with the people in the neighborhood.”
William Wainwright came to PSM while trying to figure out a way to make his faith a bigger part of his life. He became a classroom leader and soon moved into the neighborhood. William had been chasing the idea of “following your dream and dreaming big,” but realized there was much more fulfillment in making a small difference in your own piece of the world. “Settling down in the middle of nowhere and investing in a few — I have become less and less concerned with my big dream and more concerned with trying to figure out what it looks like to live out the Gospel here and now.”
Robert, a George Jenkins High School volunteer, captured the philosophy of PSM during a small group discussion on poverty. He said, “Relief is like finding a piece of furniture and giving it a coat of paint — it looks nice for a little while. Restoration is taking the time to scrape, repair, and then beautify the furniture so that it can function as its designer created it to function.”
Kim Schell, director of communications, sums up the vision of Parker Street beautifully. She says her most rewarding moment was “the very simple dedication of the Anne MacGregor Jenkins Bell Tower in 2012. It represented the culmination of a major renovation and a generous operational gift that allowed us to serve more people. It was attended by the rich and the poor who, side-by-side, celebrated and recognized the accomplishments of the neighborhood. That day the bells began ringing in our community to remind the residents they are loved and cared for, and we hope the constant marking of time teaches us to number our days.”
From my (Brooklyn’s) perspective, what Trish and all of our friends at Parker Street have found, is that there is a world of possibility right here in our own backyard. Some will believe
in it and become a part of the same possibility born in grace, graciousness, and genuine care for other people.
Thanks, Trish, for giving us a look at ourselves and what we could be when we hold hands and take care of each other.