It was a day of good fortune for many children and families of Cleveland’s Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood when U.S. missionaries Bob and Judy Willard chose to relocate to Cleveland and begin their inner-city ministry in the community. “Our entire family went on field trips, exploring different urban areas,” says Judy. “We felt an immediate calling to Cleveland. It was like God was calling us here.”
In urban ministry, the city itself sets the agenda for the mission work to be done. The Willards decided to tackle what they believed was the root problem in cities like Cleveland with a high poverty rate – a lack of basic educational skills. In 2010, the Willards purchased a home on East 115th Street in Cleveland and founded The Meeting Place Church (TMPC).
The Willards also opened the Meeting Place Learning Center, an after-school program for children, in their own home to foster an interest in school and learning among children in the neighborhood. The program offers tutoring, life skills training, Bible lessons, homework help and enrichment activities.
“We started out with six students around our dining room table,” says Judy. “We wanted to offer a safe place for children to come after school and continue their education.”
As word spread, additional referrals came pouring in. When the house next to theirs ended up in foreclosure and in the hands of the Cuyahoga Land Bank, the Willards acquired the house. Along with a host of mission teams and volunteers, they renovated the entire property and relocated the after-school Learning Center activities there.
The Learning Center, which runs strictly on private donations, now has 32 student participants ranging in age from kindergarten through high school. “There is no shortage of students and referrals,” says Judy who says there is an extensive waiting list. Students, who are referred to the program through a network of 10 schools in the area, must meet several criteria, including being ranked in the bottom 10 percent of their class and considered academically or behaviorally challenged.
With encouragement from the Cuyahoga Land Bank, the Willards also established the Meeting Place Community Park on two vacant lots across the street from the Center. “We secured a Neighbor Up grant through Neighborhood Connections, and we were fortunate to have a lot of volunteers come out and clear debris and landscape the park,” says Pastor Bob. “Students are now able to develop social interaction and teamwork skills by participating in organized play.”
As the Willards continue to transform the lives of their neighbors they have big plans to continue their mission work, and this summer acquired a dilapidated neighborhood tavern building a mile from the church on Buckeye Road and are currently renovating the property. Plans for the building include a Coffee House, a church meeting space and space for mental health counseling services.
“We have been fortunate to work with the Cuyahoga Land Bank on many occasions, and every interaction has been fantastic,” says Pastor Bob. “The Cuyahoga Land Bank has been tremendously helpful and encouraging, and we cannot say enough good things about the staff. When we take on a project, we make it happen, and I think they appreciate that.”
“God led us to the house we are in, and everything that has happened since is all part of the plan,” says Pastor Bob.
Click HERE to learn more about the Meeting Place Learning Center or to make a donation.