Connecting Caring Communities Closes: ‘It’s Absolutely Heartbreaking’
By LORETTA FULTON
Even seeing it coming didn’t soften the impact of the closing of Connecting Caring Communities for people deeply committed to it.
Dec. 31, 2020, marked the end of the neighborhood improvement initiative that got its start in 2001 at Hardin-Simmons University and gained nonprofit status in 2005. CCC was the brainchild of Linda Carleton, who was dean of students at HSU when she first mentioned the idea to then-President Lanny Hall in 2000.
With two grown daughters of her own and hundreds of former HSU students she “mothered,” Carleton likened the closing of CCC to watching children leave home for college.
“You know it’s time,” she said, “but you have to go through that grief.”
In 2001, when Craig Turner was inaugurated as president of the university, he picked up the idea and got it rolling. In 2004, Turner named Carleton to lead the university’s neighborhood outreach program. She continued in that role until retiring from Hardin-Simmons in 2008. In retirement, she served on the CCC board of directors, including as president.
The closing of Connecting Caring Communities came on the last day of 2020. But Dec. 31 of any year also is the eve of a new year and new possibilities. Even through the tears of disappointment, those long affiliated with CCC are looking ahead.
“God was in it from the beginning,” Carleton said. “I just look for God to do things in a new way.”
That already is happening. One of the most visible programs of CCC was its Friendship House initiative. Community coordinators were hired to live in the houses, which served as the hub for community activities such as potluck lunches, after-school tutoring, back-to-school events, and holiday gatherings.
Initially CCC, through sponsors, owned three Friendship Houses. That number dwindled as CCC narrowed its scope. The last two Friendship Houses were located at 2701 Hickory Street and at 1518 Orange Street.
Terry Cagle, CCC executive director since 2017 and his wife, Becki, bought the Hickory Street or North Park Friendship House, a few years ago and will continue to live there. The Orange Street or College Heights Friendship House, was given to First Baptist Church’s City Light Community Ministries, with the intention of continuing a neighborhood relationship.
“We wanted there to be presence in the neighborhood,” Cagle said.
The house will be occupied until May by former Community Coordinator David Adams and his family. Adams now is employed by BCFS family services. John Moore, pastor for missions at First Baptist, said CCC’s mission of serving a neighborhood also lies at the heart of the church’s mission.
“We’re excited how that could tie into First Baptist,” he said.
Connecting Caring Communities leaders also are hopeful about other neighborhood initiatives that could be sponsored going forward by other institutions or nonprofits. A major one is the Young Leaders of Abilene program, which is near to the heart of Janet Mendenhall, a community coordinator since 2010. For several years, she and her husband, Doug, lived in the Valley View Friendship House on North Eighth Street.
Mendenhall was instrumental in getting the Young Leaders of Abilene program off the ground and was its guiding light. The year-round program trained middle and high school students to be leaders. The highlight of the year was the Caring in Action or C.I.A camp that gave the young leaders an opportunity to use their new skills by leading the camps for younger children.
The young leaders-in-training learned skills, got jobs, and connected with one another, Mendenhall said. The program was aided by financial help from local sponsors, including a grant from the Community Foundation of Abilene. Mendenhall is hopeful that the work she and others started with the young leaders will be picked up, but in the meantime she is grieving alongside everyone else connected with, or influenced by, Connecting Caring Communities.
“It was what I did,” she said. “It was who I was.”
Others, too, feel defined by their work, or ministry, with CCC. It was modeled after a similar program, Shreveport-Bossier City Community Renewal, founded by Mack McCarter. Carleton, a native of Shreveport, heard McCarter speak during a visit to her home church and later invited him to speak at Hardin-Simmons. From the beginning, CCC was viewed as a ministry, not just a program. It is based on forming relationships with neighbors and working alongside them to improve life in the neighborhood.
For that reason, leading the organization seemed the perfect job for Terry Cagle when the executive director position came open in 2017. A native of Abilene, Cagle had been serving as minister of a church in Arlington.
“This is an opportunity to be in truly a Kingdom of God work,” he said in an interview in August 2017 for a Spirit of Abilene article.
He believes that has been accomplished but knows much more needs to be done. Kingdom of God work never ends.
“We had a great run for fifteen years,” he said, “and we did great things.”
From the beginning, Connecting Caring Communities was dependent on churches, foundations, individual donors, and nonprofits for most of its funding. That was supplemented by occasional fundraisers such as the Good Neighbor Breakfast held once a year. For the first four years of its existence, CCC was funded by grants from the Shelton Foundation to Hardin-Simmons, which oversaw the program.
Since that funding ended, money has been tight and then COVID-19 struck, knocking out fund-raising events and hitting the economy hard. Cagle and CCC supporters could see the handwriting on the wall. Even knowing the end was coming, it still hurt.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Cagle said.
With the dissolution of the nonprofit, its assets were distributed to other organizations with similar goals. The Friendship House on Orange Street was donated to First Baptist Church, along with 25 percent of CCC’s financial assets. Another 25 percent of the financial assets went to Men of Nehemiah, a local ministry for men suffering from addiction, and the remaining 50 percent went to Grace Fellowship, an outreach of Highland Church of Christ on Cypress Street.
Cagle wants to see the Grace Fellowship building made into more of a public space for residents of North Abilene. The church hosted many of the Young Leaders of Abilene events, including summer camps. Cagle would like to see other churches in the downtown area get involved with expanding the outreach of Grace Fellowship.
Both Cagle and longtime CCC Community Coordinator Janet Mendenhall are currently looking for other employment in Abilene. But no matter what part of town their future jobs might be in, their hearts will be in North Abilene where Connecting Caring Communities concentrated its work. As sad as this day is, the people most heavily invested in the organization’s work vow to carry on. Cagle wrote “A Love Letter to Abilene” for CCC’s website at the end of the year. He explained what went into making the “agonizing decision” to close the nonprofit. He offered a kind of prayer for the future.
“May we all remain committed to loving God and loving neighbors. May we all continue to pray that God’s Kingdom may come here in Abilene as it is in heaven! Never forget that we are better together!”
And he closed with words familiar to anyone who ever has read the Bible.
“Thankfully yours in the struggle to love as we’ve been loved.”
Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene
SOME CCC HIGHLIGHTS
2001–Hardin-Simmons University and Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal establish informal partnership to pursue educational goals for HSU students in community renewal, including a pilot replication program in Abilene
2002/2003–Pilot Friendship House opens on Sayles Boulevard with HSU graduate students living there
2004–Neighborhood Enhancement Center established through Shelton Foundation grant; community coordinator hired; North Park neighborhood program established
2005–Connecting Caring Communities officially chartered to serve Abilene as a nonprofit organization
2006–College Heights Friendship House dedicated
2007–Brad Carter hired as first executive director
2008–North Park property acquired in Hickory, Lowden, Cedar streets area
2009–North Park Friendship House construction begins; Abilene Neighborhood Initiative established by city; CCC partners with ANI and hires community coordinator
2010–North Park Friendship House completed; first Good Neighbor Breakfast held; partnership established with First Baptist Church and First Financial Bank to sponsor CCC’s third Friendship House; Carter resigns; Lori Thornton named interim
2012–Thornton named executive director; third Friendship House opens in Valley View neighborhood
2015–Connecting Caring Communities celebrates ten years; Friendship House opens on Orange Street; Caring In Action (C.I.A.) summer camps open
2017–Terry Cagle hired as executive director to replace Thornton, who resigned to take a position with the Grace Museum
2020–Connecting Caring Communities closes Dec. 31, 2020