Marry unwavering faith with a driving need to help the helpless and you have Keira Wyatt, executive director of Connect Ministries. An appropriate Biblical verse comes to mind: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Wyatt describes Connect Ministries’ programs as “stop-gap” and the ministry itself as a community resource center.
“The gaps haven’t been filled,” she said, “and they get wider.”
One glaring gap is the problems faced by ex-offenders attempting to re-integrate into society upon their release. The “Urban Cowboy Restoration Program” takes aim at the issue.
These individuals often lack adequate education, job skills and family support. Too often they become homeless. The program links clients to volunteers and organizations that will provide support as the client reenters the community.
Wyatt is proud of the ministry’s first program, “Project Fresh Start.” The project provides mentoring, life skills training and financial literacy training to at-risk youths from ages 14 to 21. As part of the program Connect Ministries “adopted” Austin East High School.
“I’ve always liked to help people,” Wyatt says. The licensed member of the clergy and mother of six saw the need to help “people being exploited.”
At the same time, she questions the priorities of the state when more than $730 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) federal block grant funds sit idle in the treasury. Wyatt will not criticize, but as someone who sees the needs of struggling families nearly every day, it’s hard for her to hide the grim acceptance and pain in her eyes.
Affordable housing is very “near and dear” to her heart, Wyatt says. Yet providing an affordable dwelling is only the first step.
Vouchers for food and other necessities are worth little without some basic money management skills. What’s needed is a financial literacy program for all voucher and subsidized housing recipients, Wyatt says. She also believes a neighborhood watch should be standard.
Wyatt points to efforts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as an example of “breaking the cycle of poverty.” Programs have been privately funded by Bank of America, Google and Harvard University. This impressive list of names demonstrates that substantial financial resources may be needed in the struggle.
The Cambridge Housing Authority provides supportive services to residents of the city’s affordable housing developments. The programs are tailored to meet the needs of all household members. A separate branch is dedicated specifically to providing services for older residents.
“The flaw in (many programs) is we don’t do enough preventive care upfront,” Wyatt says. “Why doesn’t every community have a prison re-entry program?”
Without turning a blind eye to serious issues in the community, Wyatt is sincere in professing her love for Burlington. About two years ago Connect Ministries put together a plan to introduce the concept of a “purpose built community” into Burlington.
The project drew its inspiration from the Grove Park Project in Atlanta. Ultimately, the ministry was unable to gather the necessary financial support. (You can see more of the project here: Burlington Foundation-Model Presentation.)
Wyatt remains undaunted.
“We’re in Burlington because of divine guidance,” she says, and she has no plans to leave.
Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor of KnoxTNToday.com.