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Helping families in need 'turn over a new leaf'

It pains most people to hear that many families in Charlotte choose between a meal and paying a bill on a regular basis.

It's even harder for the families that have to live with this reality every day.

The New Leaf Foundation, a nonprofit based in Ballantyne, gives help to inner-city families by providing everything from basic life necessities, to finding jobs, homes and paying bills.

But the foundation helps families make permanent changes in their lives to help them "turn over a new leaf."

"We not only fulfill a need, but we get to the root of the problem," said John Gennings, co-founder of the New Leaf Foundation. Gennings, 47, is also the vice president of the marketing firm isXperia. "We have a one-on-one meeting with them, discuss their needs and make plans to help them fix the root of their problem."

The foundation was created in 2007 by Gennings' then 16-year-old daughter, Laura, who is now a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill. She was working with the Better World after-school program at Christ Resurrection Church when she came to her father with the idea.

"She told me, 'Dad, I need to stop wasting my life,' " said Gennings. "She said she felt a need to help the families of the kids she was working with through the Better World program."

The Gennings family, John, his wife Carroll, daughter Laura and son Matthew, had been serving inner-city children together since 2001. Through his personal experiences and after speaking with families of the Better World program, Gennings decided to co-found the New Leaf Foundation with Laura. Their first call came in August 2007 from a single mother with three children whose electricity had been cut off.

"It cost $200 to get it turned back on, and as soon as I told Laura, she bolted out the door," said Gennings. "She was back in 20 minutes with $200 cash that she had collected door-to-door in our neighborhood."

The foundation has helped 50 families since 2007. In partnership with Christ Resurrection Church, located off Freedom Drive in west Charlotte, the foundation helps families who meet specific criteria laid out by the church.

Among other criteria, families must be active members of the church for at least six months and must manage their household with no signs of child abuse, neglect or drug use.

"Most importantly, we require them to attend follow-up meetings so we can help them get their lives back on track," said Gennings. "We ask them to fill out a budget of expenditures and income and then schedule financial counseling. We also provide marriage and family counseling and psychiatrists if needed."

The Adopt a Child for Christmas program, which the Gennings family began in 2001, is now underway at the New Leaf Foundation. The program, which Gennings now runs through the foundation, allows donors to "adopt" a child in need for $50. Families can be "adopted" for $125. All of the proceeds go to families in need, and donations can be made online until Dec. 13.

Every Christmas, the foundation chooses 50 children from the Better World program and 25 families from the church and provides them with gifts and warm clothing.

"We give them coats, mittens, scarves and hats, plus a couple of things off their personal wish list," said Gennings. "We also throw them a huge Christmas party where we usually feed around 200 people."

They have also partnered with 2XSalt Ministries to give families the opportunity to shop at the Christmas mall. The ministry puts together a "mall" of donated new toys and sells them to families at a discounted rate. A toy that may cost $50 in a department store would cost about $5 in the ministry's mall. Along with their own money, New Leaf also gives each child a $50 credit for parents to go shopping with.

"It gives our families a chance to maintain some dignity, knowing that they can afford to buy their kids gifts," said Gennings, who hopes to expand the program into other churches.

"No matter what church it is, whether it's a church in south Charlotte or an inner-city church, there are people with needs," said Gennings. "There are always people who have fallen on hard times, and they should be able to lean on their churches."

The foundation needs, above all else, monetary donations. Without any overhead expenditures such as salaries or office materials, 100 percent of donations go to the families they serve. The foundation's monetary needs also change month-to-month because they fulfill needs as they come.

Currently, New Leaf sends an e-mail to its donors when a need arises.

One of their latest donations came from Total Wine on the Promenade, which donated $10,000 to the foundation.

"Its going to be a tremendous help," said Gennings. "It was such an incredible blessing."

Gennings said needs don't stop after the holidays.

"By providing these families with basic life necessities, we can put a major dent into gang life and prostitution," said Gennings. "There's so much need out there. We want to help families who are on their knees at night praying for a miracle."