The Heights

HopeWorks charts growth with $25K grant from First Tennessee

In a nod to all of its good works, nonprofit HopeWorks is one of four top-tier recipients of First Tennessee Foundation’s 25 Years of Giving Video Contest.

“An organization like First Tennessee, which is very well known, to be recognized as one of the top nonprofits for who we are and what we do is pretty special,” said Ron Wade, the executive director of HopeWorks, which is in its 30th year.

The award comes with a $25,000 prize. New Ballet Ensemble was another local winner of the top tier award. The contest was held across First Tennessee’s markets of Tennessee, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia with over 500 submissions. The top 30 videos were selected by the public. The final winners were picked by a panel of judges.

Last year, HopeWorks helped 500 people obtain their high school equivalency diploma. They also provide job placement services for its students and services for people trying to acclimate to society post-prison.

Related: "Hope brims for HopeWorks' new Summer Avenue location"

“We find, particularly, that those individuals coming out of incarceration have barriers beyond getting and keeping a job — like housing, transportation, child care and even clothing,” said Wade.

The nonprofit moved to a new location at 3337 Summer Ave, bordering Binghamton and The Heights neighborhoods, last February due to growth. The new space will allow the nonprofit to double its class offerings as well add space for community events.

The foundation launched 25 Years of Giving Video Contest on June 25 to celebrate the foundation’s 25th anniversary. Since being founded in 1993, more than $80 million has been invested in communities.

Entrants submitted videos to tell their stories. Storytelling, along with creativity, originality, motivation, inspiration and community impact were the benchmarks for the judges.

“We knew there were many powerful stories of how our support has helped organizations. We also knew there were many opportunities to partner with other eligible organizations as well. So, our video contest’s theme asked nonprofits to share with us, in 60 seconds or less, how our foundation has partnered or could partner with them to uplift our communities,” said Alana Hu, First Tennessee Foundation spokesperson.

Along with Wade, videographer Russ Turman helped produce the winning video. It included testimonials about the organization’s local impact. 

In addition to first-rate production, the video was a compelling narrative.

“The story basically is we are a faith-based organization trying to help people in second chances, third chances — trying to move the needle on poverty in the city. We are trying to do that by way of education for people who dropped out of high school,” said Wade.

HopeWorks partners with around 150 area employers on job placement as well as an internship program that serves 75 students annually.

“The piece that really makes it work is working with employers to educate them about how to work with someone coming out of generational poverty, work with someone coming out of incarceration. We often say it is much easier to get a job than to keep a job. The keeping piece - the retention — is critical,” said Wade, explaining how the nonprofit works with partner employers on job retention issues.

Educating potential employers on these issues can help end a cycle of hiring and termination, which can often lead to “compassion fatigue.” According to Wade, HopeWorks helps an average of 50 inmates from the Shelby County correctional facility per month through its professional and career development program.

A leadership team will look into various funding options for the award money. One need is for a case manager, which would be a new position for the organization.

“One broad area is retention and case management — getting individuals who are key to knowing different resources in the city they can direct individuals to — that’s a huge area for us,” said Wade.

Outreach to potential employers is another area of need.

“We have a job placement division, but the bandwidth is pretty stretched on that, so we might add a part-time staff to help with that,” said Wade.

Adding a volunteer manager is another option — a person who can coordinate the volunteer efforts. Volunteers serve as mentors for the students, lend advice and provide a guiding hand to students.

“There are a lot of people who want to volunteer and keeping up with volunteers and placing them in the right spot, training them well and recognizing them is a large part of our work. We don’t have anyone doing that,” said Wade.

Neighboring Binghampton is also home to a growing immigrant community. Within the ESL program, HopeWorks has seen over 300 students from 40 different countries. With many of those students hoping to further assimilate, there is an opportunity for HopeWorks to further expand their educational and job placement services.

“The primary reason they are coming is to get their high school diploma, but we want to expand that to incorporate the job piece — as well as sharing hospitality," said Wade.

When Wade talks about earning their way into the neighborhood, it’s not just about putting up a HopeWorks sign and then expect the people to flood through their doors. It’s about looking for opportunities to get more involved with the community thus earning trust.

To that end, HopeWorks has had a couple of open houses and plans on hosting community events around the holidays.

Even though their core work revolves around jobs and education, the nonprofit’s team understands most successful organizations don’t go into a community and says ‘We think we know what you need more than you know what you need.’ So, they intend to do a lot of listening going forward.

In fact, HopeWorks has a grant that’s called Listen for Good and is designed to encourage them to listen to the students and see what their needs are and then construct programming around that feedback. Listen for Good is a grant program part of the Shared Insight initiative, geared toward developing a practice of listening to the people nonprofits seek to help.

“It’s getting into the community, listening, perceiving and then being accepted for the community to feel comfortable enough to tell us what they need,” said Wade.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.