Santa Claus came to East Durham the Saturday before Christmas. He was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and his furry, tasseled hat was Carolina blue instead of red, but he and his elves had turned an Angier Avenue bungalow into Toyland itself.
“Come on, come on,” Santa Claus (as played by Dennis Garrett) would say, beckoning children lined up outside to come inside and pick a present.
“Come walk with me,” he said when kids hung back, not sure what to make of it all. “What would you like?”
Dennis Garrett runs Love and Respect, an addiction-recovery program based in Northeast Central Durham, and for the fifth Christmas season, its members had collected toys for children in the neighborhood who are, as Garrett said, “less fortunate.”
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There were dolls and baseball gloves, Lego kits and jump ropes, roller skates and board games and a stuffed pony big enough for a toddler to get up on and ride. Some kids saw what they liked right away; more hung back with the grownups who had brought them – shy if not simply overwhelmed.
“Come on,” Santa said. “What do you see? What would you like? Merry Christmas, merry Christmas, merry Christmas.”
Love and Respect’s toy giveaway went by like a whirlwind. Quick as the figurative wink, Garrett and his helpers – his family, lodge brothers, people his program had aided – spread toys and cheer out into Durham County Census Tract 10.01: target zone for a comprehensive, community-wide drive to alleviate poverty in Durham.
A year ago, The Durham News named poverty as a Story to Watch in 2014. In February, Mayor Bill Bell made poverty relief a city priority, “year by year, neighborhood by neighborhood,” starting in 2014 and carrying on, by implication, for the duration.
According to current U.S. Census estimates ( nando.com/2013poverty), 20 percent of Durham residents live in poverty. The statewide figure for North Carolina is 17.5 percent. In the Durham Public Schools system, 66 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
In the elementary schools that serve Tract 10.01, Eastway and Y.E. Smith, nearly all the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
“Since Mayor Bell has set poverty alleviation as a priority, we are seeing much energy released from individuals, nonprofits, and business leaders,” said Mel Williams, a retired minister and co-founder of the nonprofit End Poverty Durham. “We can be much encouraged by the unfolding process.
“But we also know,” he said, “that this is long-term work.”
The city’s Poverty Reduction Initiative targeted two “block groups” in Census Tract 10.01. The tract covers about half of Northeast Central Durham, the same area where End Poverty Durham has begun an initiative of its own: REAL Durham ( nando.com/real+).
“REAL” stands for “Relationships Equipping Allies and Leaders,” the leaders being persons living in material poverty and the allies being middle-class volunteers who join in what Williams called “a mutual, reciprocal relationship, where we learn from each other.”
About 80 people have been meeting once a week for a meal and classes for potential leaders and allies. From that group, 14 leaders will be matched with several allies to continue working together for 18 months – the allies acting as friends, resources and coaches to the leaders in building wealth and shedding reliance on public assistance.
“This model is a process of building trust and mutual respect, across class and racial lines,” Williams said. “It’s not a quick fix, but we believe, over time, that these families will reach economic stability with living wage jobs.
“This is a community-driven model, so we place crucial emphasis on releasing the strengths of the residents, not imposing a ‘program’ from outside,” he said.
In his State of the City speech, Bell praised End Poverty Durham for “helping lead the way.” He also mentioned Made in Durham ( nando.com/made), a project to ensure that all Durham youngsters get the skills and credentials for livable-wage jobs by the time they’re 25 years old.
‘No quick fix’
The idea was hatched by local business and institutional executives in collaboration with the nonprofit think-tank MDC (originally, “Manpower Development Corp.”).
Made In Durham’s primary target is youths who have dropped out of school, been involved in the criminal justice system or are otherwise “disconnected” from mainstream paths from school into careers.
The program is about “creating job skills and getting people out of poverty,” said Victor Dzau, chairman of the Made in Durham board.
“We would want to have some early deliverables,” Dzau said – such as placing some youth in jobs within the next few months, but the goal is bigger than that.
“If I was Santa Claus I’d come in and give people jobs, and salaries, but that’s not the case,” Dzau said. “We’re going to go for long-term systems change to really create a new educational pathway.
“The thing I need to emphasize, of course, is that nothing is a quick fix.”
A frame of mind
On the Saturday before Christmas, Love and Respect’s toy giveaway went quick. There were 360 toys to start with, set out on tables like a kids’ cornucopia, and less than an hour, and about 100 children, later they were all but gone.
“We want to give to the community,” Garrett said, stepping out of his Santa Claus role. “We’re working in the community, we want to show the community that good things are happening in Durham.”
“Here’s an example of what can happen with the right frame of mind,” said Kenneth Dunn, the organization’s operations manager. “It all comes from the heart.”
Garrett told his helpers to gather up the toys that were left and put them in his car.
“Put that stuff in my trunk,” he said, “so if I see some children I can give it away.”