Instead of springing from bed on Christmas morning, a little boy rises slowly from his mattress on the floor, knowing that there won’t be gifts this year. There isn’t heat or TV, no toothpaste or laundry detergent; how could there be gifts? This is a typical story for many children in at-risk neighborhoods in Charlotte. When John Gennings saw how desperate the situation was for many families, he knew he couldn’t just sit by. Through his church, he heard of an after-school enrichment program called A Better World, sponsored by Christ Resurrection Church. He liked what they were doing for inner-city kids and wanted to help give them a chance at a memorable Christmas. “My family and I started the Adopt a Child Program in 2001,” says Gennings. “We’d gather private donations and buy the kids and all their siblings gifts. I remember one year, we got every single child a bicycle and had them turn around while we brought the bikes in. When they saw the bikes, they ran over and hugged them, cheering and jumping. The gratitude over something as simple as a bike was just incredible. They couldn’t believe it.” Gennings attributes the birth of the New Leaf Foundation in 2007 to his daughter, Laura, now in college. He says when she saw the juxtaposition between children’s home life and the life they had at A Better World, she knew she wanted to do something to make their home lives better, too. According to Gennings, “She said, ‘Dad, I want to stop wasting my life. I want to help these families turn over a new leaf.’ And I was like, wait – is this coming from a 16-year-old teenager?” Gennings says he went out the next day to apply for a 501(c)3 status. It took a year, but the foundation was finally approved. Gennings partnered with Pastor Kenneth Gilliard of Christ Resurrection Church to help the families whose children were a part of A Better World. “The thing was, we didn’t want it to be a handout,” says Gennings. “We didn’t just want to pay a light bill and put a Band-Aid on the situation. We wanted to get to the root of the problem and help them fix it.” Gennings says they begin by talking to the families about their home and work life and assessing what problems need to be fixed. They help them pay bills, give them financial classes, help them create a budget and provide them with counseling. Kenneth Gilliard says that those who receive help from New Leaf must fit certain criteria. “These people are giving, active members of a church community,” says Gilliard. “And they are required to have regular meetings with us to make sure they are getting on the right track and staying on their budget. If they aren’t taking our advice and simply looking for a handout, we have to stop helping them. And sometimes saying ‘no’ is what they need to hear to get straight and work hard.” He also says that he doesn’t believe people truly understand the plight of living in an at-risk neighborhood. “I can’t stand it when people say, ‘Those people just need to pick themselves by their bootstraps,’” Gilliard says. “Poverty is a cycle, and a hard one to break. A flat tire can cause homelessness, but I think most people would find that statement ridiculous. But in the case of a single mother, working three jobs just to keep the bills paid, a flat tire means she has to either pay for the tire or pay for rent. And when the tire is flat, she’s missing work to pay for her other bills, too.” New Leaf, partnered with A Better World, also provides toiletry and paper items for the children and their families. “Honestly, it’s things we take for granted every day, like deodorant, that can keep a kid from going to school,” says Gennings. “If they also can’t afford laundry detergent and are wearing dirty clothes to school, they get bullied. It’s enough to make a young person drop out, especially when he doesn’t have the support he needs to encourage him to go.” Gennings says the next step for New Leaf is to help other churches that may not have the funds to aid its own members who’ve fallen on hard times. “Although Laura is in college, she’s still thinking of ways to help others through the foundation. Adopt a Church was her idea,” he says. “We’d like to be the middleman between churches that may be prospering and those who may not be, to help everyone in the church community who may need a hand.” Gilliard adds, “While missionary work outside America is good, folks need to realize that there’s plenty to do right here in Charlotte. Together, we could get more kids off the street and help their families get a leg up in life.” “By helping their families,” says Gennings, “we are giving these kids a chance.”
For more information on the New Leaf Foundation, visit www.newleaffound.org.