More than 50 years of hope for South Minneapolis

Cindy Booker, executive director of Sabathani Community Center, says Prince never forgot his roots.Photo by Doualy Xaykaothao, Minnesota Public Radio News. © 2016 Minnesota Public Radio®.  Used with permission.  All rights reserved. www.mpr.orgBY STEPHANIE FOX

Sabathani Community Center has been part of the local community for 51 years, so there are very few people living in South Minneapolis who don’t recognize the large brown brick building at the heart of the economically edgy Bryant neighborhood.
Located at 310 E. 38th St., Sabathani began in 1966 as a project of the Sabathani Baptist Church to provide recreational opportunities for local children. In 1979, the group bought the abandoned Bryant Junior High School building. No longer church affiliated, it now remains one of the oldest African-American founded nonprofits in Minnesota. Its goal, said Executive Director Cindy Booker, is to help lift economically depressed neighborhoods out of poverty all over Minneapolis.
Sabathani relies on private donations in addition to some government grant funding, with a number of prominent supporters including the late pop star Prince, who once attended Bryant Junior High School where Sabathani is now housed. Others include a number of local luminaries such as former Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton, Judge Lajune Lange and Judge Pamela Alexander.
“We’re here to assist the community to decrease disparity gaps,” said Booker. “Our programs serve 30,000 residents each year.”
Sabathani focuses on four program areas—family resources, youth and after school programs, a senior center, and health and wellness services.
Some of its most successful programs center on adult education. Partnered with Minneapolis Public Schools’ adult education programs, help is available for passing the GED to get a high school diploma. Other programs focus on job training, helping unemployed and underemployed to put together resumes and to find employment opportunities.
Sabathani, the Urban League and Stain Step Foundation are sharing a $4.3 million federal grant and an $85,000 state grant to create what has become two of the organizations’ most successful programs: forklift training and a course in cash management. Both courses require only 12-hours of training, two days a week for three weeks.
Forklift training graduates receive a certification and forklift license, with the possibility of earning $16 an hour with a chance to advance to $25 an hour. From there, students can set their sites on a possible future in warehouse management. About 25 students graduate the program each month.
Most warehouse positions require OSHA safety training, said Kevin Sanders, the Center’s education manager for family resources and forklift instructor, who has worked in the industry for 37 years. “People usually get jobs doing warehouse work, loading and unloading. You can go from here to any company and operate a forklift or even go into construction if you want,” he said.
“It pays well. The wages can take care of a family. Plus, in these jobs there are a lot of opportunities for overtime,” he said.
Cash management courses, taught by certified public accountant Lisa Snedeker, addresses the practical job duties of entry-level finance positions, such as accounts payable, accounts receivable and bookkeeping. “We work on interview skills, office skills, teach Microsoft Excel and help put together resumes that will get people into positions in finance and banking,” she said. About 70% of the class is teaching how to work in professional environments.
“Our goal is to get our students $15 an hour,” she said. “Many of the students have been out of the workforce and think they aren’t qualified for anything. The most rewarding part of teaching this class is letting people know that they can do these things, that they are qualified,” she said. “We give hope and confidence. People come to me and tell me this, each class we teach.”
Sabathani serves about 40,000 households, 8% of the population of Minneapolis, with one of the largest food shelves in Minnesota, distributing more than a million pounds of fresh vegetables, meats, beans, carbohydrates and canned and packaged foods. Clients can even get juice and dessert items. Between 2015 and 2016, the program grew 44% and is still growing.
The food shelf is for some, an introduction to other programs at Sabathani. “People don’t know that jobs exists or about our job training. One person who came to our food shelves had an associate degree but no job,” said Booker. “She learned about training and signed up for our banking course. A few weeks later, she had an $18/hour job.”
Lauren Pagel, the education manager of family resources says that each summer, the Center offers young people, 14 to 18 years old, a youth program to teach various life skills. This year, beginning June 26, the S.T.E.A.M program (science, technology, engineering+arts, mathematics) hopes to bring together young people and local professional community artists. Students will work with the artists to create a mural inside the Center’s sunny garden center.
“We are thinking about installations that are both beautiful and functional, maybe something involving solar panels. It’ll involve physics, geometry, measurement and construction. They’ll learn to plan and make something from concept to the end,” Pagel said.
The students will also be charged with finding public space for a work of art, dealing with the city for permission and with local city ordinances and government rules. “If they get a ‘no’ they’ll still have learned something about navigating the system,” she said.
The Center also finds other ways to attract new clients who may not be aware of the services offered. To bring in new-to-Minneapolis women from Latin America, taking sewing classes (skirts!) introduces them to other opportunities, such as English courses and health services, while socializing and having fun.
Sabathani’s senior services includes ways for social engagement events, card games, a choir, fitness classes and political forums, an AARP chapter and clinics, including blood pressure and glucose testing and a $20 podiatrist ‘Feet Forever Clinic,’ with a foot massage included. There are additional focused outreach programs for Latino and Somali seniors and monthly field trips and monthly lunch events, as well.
In the near future, Sabathani has plans to build new senior apartments for people who are age 55 or older. In 2011, the City Council set aside funding for Sabathani to build specialty housing. Groundbreaking for the project is set for the end of 2017. When completed, 50 units with a choice of efficiency, one or two bedroom units, all with underground parking and stainless steel appliances, will rent for an estimated $800 to $1,000/month.
“Sabathani won’t make a profit on this. We want to help people age in place,” said Cooper. Seniors, she said, often have to give up everything that makes their lives stable when they move into senior housing. “The new units would allow people who live or have lived in the local community to stay. They won’t have to find new friends or a new church or even a new place to get their hair done,” Cooper said. Apartments should be available beginning next year.
In addition to the special programs, the Center provides a community garden and a children’s playground. It is the home of more than 30 other nonprofit organizations.

PHOTO CREDIT: Cindy Booker, executive director of Sabathani Community Center, says Prince never forgot his roots.Photo by Doualy Xaykaothao, Minnesota Public Radio News. © 2016 Minnesota Public Radio®.  Used with permission.  All rights reserved.

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