Organization Works to ‘Advance’ 38126 ZIP

By Aisling Maki

The 38126 ZIP code shone brightly in the national spotlight when President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Booker T. Washington High School after the school won the 2011 White House Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.

The White House said BTW’s improved graduation rate of more than 80 percent was a major factor in its winning the presidential address.

“We are here today because every single one of you stood up and said, ‘Yes we can,’” Obama told the graduating seniors May 16. “That’s why I came here today. Because if success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. It can happen throughout Tennessee. And it can happen all across America.”

But few people outside the South Memphis neighborhood truly understand the obstacles to success – including drugs, gangs and poverty – faced daily by residents of one of the city’s poorest ZIP codes, where roughly 70 percent of residents are unemployed or no longer in the workforce and close to half have less than a high school diploma.

For 12 years, a nonprofit, faith-based organization called Advance Memphis has worked diligently to bring economic revitalization to the community that surrounds the former Cleaborn Homes public housing developments, which are currently under demolition. At the time Advance Memphis was founded, 38126 was the third poorest ZIP code in the United States.

“It started with (founder and executive director) Steve Nash driving around in his truck, saying, ‘Hey, let me get to know you. Are you working? Do you have a resume?’” said Michael Shaw, Advance Memphis volunteer and outreach coordinator. “He contacted friends that he knew through church and his business connections and he started matching people up.”

Since then, the organization has grown tremendously, adding staff and volunteers and even expanding into the other side of the building it shared at 769 Vance Ave. with Street Ministries, which has since moved to a new location. Advance Memphis specifically serves 38126, working to empower the inner city neighborhood’s adults through a variety of programs, including job skills training classes that help residents find and maintain employment and build careers.

The nonprofit also works with local businesses to help fill their staffing needs. Its biggest clients include KTG USA, a local mill that produces paper products, and WMBarr, where Advance Memphis graduates package products.

“This program not only teaches you people skills and job skills, and it also gives you a spiritual awakening,” said program graduate Clintonia Moore, who contacted Advance Memphis at the suggestion of her daughter.

Moore faced serious emotional and financial hardships after her mother and grandmother died of cancer and her son nearly lost his life to gang violence.

“When I first came here, God and I were not on the same page,” she said. “I’m getting older, and it was time for me to do something positive. It was time for me to make a change for my kids.”

Now Moore works as an on-site supervisor at KTG. She still regularly visits Advance Memphis to continue the learning process and to maintain the positive relationships she’s built – something the organization encourages.

Advance Memphis also offers a warehouse skills and forklift training program and an outsourcing program that gives participants the opportunity to earn money while looking for permanent jobs.

The outsourcing program operates out of an on-site workroom located in the same building as Advance Memphis’ offices and classrooms. A current project involves embroidering the logos on shirts made for employees of Memphis-based AutoZone Inc.

The project, which had previously been outsourced to Bangladesh, now uses skilled Memphis workers, some of whom have felonies on their record and would have difficulty finding work elsewhere.

The project gives workers a second chance, accustoming them to clocking in and out, following proper procedures and working with co-workers and a supervisor.

Advance Memphis also focus heavily on life skills, financial literacy and helping residents work towards obtaining their GEDs.

Shaw said Advance Memphis is blessed to have numerous professionals in the community who dedicate their time to sharing their skills and knowledge with program participants.

“Our volunteers are a huge mix of people,” Shaw said. “We have retired teachers, teachers who are off for the summer who offer their time. We have people who come on their lunch break for one-on-one tutoring. Math and English are kind of our two biggest focuses.”

Moore said the caring, supportive community she’s found at Advance Memphis has given her a new lease on life.

“You can keep growing with your life,” she said.

“Once you get in here, it’s your family. You always have your family. There are some lovely people here.”