by Tom Finan, Executive Director
"This connects the dots."
I was speaking to Mike Sullivan, the COO and general counsel of Cortex Innovation District. We were guests at an executive breakfast at the new facilities of Mission STL. We were having a discussion with those at our table, non-construction types. We explained how things like education, "soft skills," mental health, and financial literacy all come into play. We noted that political emphasis on percentages, and traditional job recruitment training efforts ignore the barriers which must be overcome.
Mike was already familiar with the holistic approach of Mission STL. Its education program provides math and science literacy support for middle school students that moves them ahead 1.5 years for every six months they spend in the program. It has a jobs program that deals with age 22-35 males, mentoring on what it is to be a man, health and wellness, financial literacy, dealing with the outfall from earlier encounters with the law, and arranging internships. It has produced some pretty startling results for its 246 graduates:
- 64% are employed within six months of graduation (73% within six months)
- 91% have no new criminal offenses since entering the program
- 93 % reported finding a new identity and purpose after completing the program
- 94% have improved their relationship with their child(ren)
MIssion STL is focusing on issues like fatherlessness and exposure to brutal violence in a holistic approach to changing outcomes. "We believe that what we have done here is a create a pipeline," Founder and Executive Director Josh Wilson said.
Hurting Rather Than Helping
After coming to St. Louis from Louisiana with his wife Leigh, Wilson presented leadership training for kids in the public schools. He tried to engage kids by asking them what cartoon character they would like to be and what non-living person they would most like to talk with.
When he asked the latter question, one girl told him that she'd give anything to talk with her brother, who was shot to death in front of her in their front yard. Wilson began to realize the complexity of the issues impacting at-risk kids.
He started conversations with his church, The Journey, where he is now an elder (Full disclosure: The Journey is my church, and I wrote about it recently in this space). His ideas eventually developed into a full-fledged mercy ministry designed to connect The Journey with residents in at-risk neighborhoods. After a three-month flurry of unfocused volunteer activity, he realized that his group was doing harm rather than good. Volunteers did not have personal relationships with any of the people they were serving. Everyone involved was burned out. It was time for a change.
Operating in a New Space
For most of its decade-long life, Mission STL operated in 6,000 sq. ft. space just east of Urban Chestnut brewery on Manchester in The Grove neighborhood. Six months ago the organization moved to a location on North Grand across from the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club (former site of Sportsman's Park) that, Josh Wilson said, lowered the availability of craft beer, but infinitely raised the opportunities for the organization to connect.
The four-story building could be a metaphor for the organization's programming: Full of surprises and opportunities. Originally built as a YMCA in 1918, it has been owned by a missionary church organization for 20 years. Most recently it housed a charter school. At 87,000 sq. ft. there is ample space for new programming. The design and architectural firm JEMA has been assisting in that process.
Since moving in six months ago the staff is constantly discovering new spaces. A tiled swimming pool was discovered in the basement. The gym, with its hardwood floors and elevated running track, echoes the MAC Downtown facility. There's an Arts and Crafts-tiled fireplace in the lounge off the lobby (which goes to nowhere). And a few weeks ago the staff opened a door to find a handball court.
All of this space is being put to new uses. SLATE has opened an office there. There are plans for wellness and mental health services. Listening to Wilson, one can tell that he sees all that unused space as opportunities waiting to happen, just like the people his organization serves.
Josh Wilson tells of having "15 dudes in my living room" — in the male mentoring program —and having one young man become so frustrated as he processed his upbringing that he smashed his fist on Wilson's coffee table so hard that Wilson thought the table would break.
Wilson said that after completing the program the young men have new sense of self worth, and what it means to be a responsible adult male. In the process, they are expected to work, to perform properly in internships and in general to act responsibly. In return they receive assistance with past legal woes (riding in a car with someone carrying an illegal gun can bring a felony conviction), and with basics like getting a bank account, an apartment, and reliable transportation to work.
"We talk about what does it mean to be a man," Wilson said. "We tell them that, 'You matter: That passion you have has workplace value.'"