Donald A. Promnitz">

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published on October 29, 2020 - 2:41 PM
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A new initiative is on its way to the Central Valley that aims to get churches involved in assisting some of the state’s most economically troubled areas.

Led by the Center for Community Transformation (CCT) at Fresno Pacific University, the New Skills for a New Era Initiative aims to help equip churches in economically depressed areas and in the Central Valley with the tools needed to help their congregations and surrounding neighborhoods.

The initiative has been made possible thanks to a $990,280 grant by Lilly Endowment, Inc. Fresno Pacific University was one of 92 applicants to be accepted from a pool of more than 800 for the Driving Congregations Grant.

According to Randy White, executive for the CCT, this includes churches of all denominations, spanning from Merced to Bakersfield.

“These aren’t just individual skills, these are institutional skills — a new toolbox of skills,” White said. “Our objective is to equip faith organizations with a new toolbox that will help them train their congregations to focus on their neighborhoods and communities in various ways that approach the problems that are most seriously impacting those communities.”

White added that the New Skills initiative will focus predominantly on urban and rural, Spanish-speaking congregations, and English-speaking churches in diverse communities. It’s their hope that churches can then work to curb unemployment, violence, educational gaps and other issues.

Alongside the New Skills initiative, the CCT plans to help congregations in the Valley by offering scholarships for specialized classes and certifications. These include financial literacy and social enterprise — businesses that address social issues while being profitable and self-sustaining — and micro enterprise. With Covid-19’s effects still being felt, White explained that there are many out of work, or even out of prison, who possess a profitable skill that they can turn into a side hustle, or even a living.

“They have plenty of drive, they’ve got plenty of energy and entrepreneurial spirit, but they don’t know the process of starting a small business,” White said. “So we have now trained teams up and down the Valley to help people learn how to start their own microbusiness or small business to help pay for their families’ needs.”

White says that there is enough funding to create 60 financial literacy facilitators per year over the course of five years — or 300 in total. The cost to train a facilitator, White explained, is anywhere from $250 to $400. CCT leadership hopes this will help these communities break away from predatory payday lending, which has long been a problem they’ve faced.

Carlos Huerta, associate director the CCT, added that there is likely to be greater engagement from church communities thanks to the initiative. As he explained, there are many who want to volunteer in church, but have struggled to find a fulfilling role. By assisting fellow congregants with legal and business advice, Huerta argues they may find their skills being used to benefit others in a visible way.

“We’ve seen that catch on really quickly,” Huerta said. “And that same person who was never really engaged in a congregation, all of a sudden realizes, ‘I absolutely have assets from my professional life that I can use to do good work within our congregation.’”

White and Huerta expect the initiative to roll out in January 2021.

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