Klondike Smokey City

Neighborhood Christian Center provides sustenance for Memphis' disadvantaged neighborhoods

Neighborhood Christian Center, a network of care centers for wraparound assistance, started in the hearts of foster parents JoAnne and Monroe Ballard. 

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For Ephie Johnson the bar was set pretty high by her parents long before she took the reins of the Neighborhood Christian Center nine years ago.

“Over a period of 23 years, my mom and dad with their full-time ministry provided 75 foster children a home through their own resources,” Johnson said.

Both her parents, JoeAnn and Monroe Ballard, were teachers. They sought out children who were abused, neglected or in some cases were the charges of parents who could no longer care for their children.

As the need grew, so did additions to the Ballard family, which already included three biological children.

Johnson’s father built nine bedrooms to the existing family home. The couple married in 1965 and the expansion of the family began in 1968 and lasted until 1995.

“Everyone had their own room and own stuff and their lock for their door,” she said.

The labor of love that began with her parents nearly 40 years ago has blossomed into six Neighborhood Christian Centers across the city.

Thressia Elias kisses her daughter, Azaylia Elias, 1, during Operation Smart Child, a prenatal program for expectant mothers, at the Neighborhood Christian Center.

Established in 1978, the all-purpose center provides basic needs such as food, clothing, furnishings, emergency assistance and social programs to the underserved community.

JoeAnn Ballard, Johnson’s mother, remains as a senior adviser to the spiritually-based centers. Her husband and co-founder, Monroe Ballard, died eight years ago.

Johnson serves as the president and CEO of the network, which includes locations in Smokey City, Binghampton, Robin Hood Park, Frayser and Orange Mound.

Referrals to the centers are usually by word of mouth. Radio and TV ads are used to alert the community of special giveaways such as for heaters or air conditioners.

“My mother dedicated her heart to the work of mission and she was the first woman to attend Nazarene Bible College in West Virginia in 1961,” she said.

Joi Hibbler, an educator for Operation Smart Child, leads a conversation in the prenatal program for expectant mothers at the Neighborhood Christian Center in Smokey City.

After graduation from college, JoeAnn Ballard was assigned to a church in South Memphis. She met her husband through mutual friends and never looked back.

The Neighborhood Christian Center began on a small donated lot at Manassas and Looney in Klondike and has since developed into the multi-layered facility that encompasses a five-stage approach to helping its clientele and the community.

“Our holistic approach allows us to serve the entire family,” Johnson said. “The goal is to leave a positive legacy for the family and the children.”

The first stage is early childhood development. One initiative, Operation Smart Child, is a program to improve brain development and social skills in children from infancy to age five.

Adult Empowerment Ministries offers training and opportunities to assist adults. Programs include Women Empowered to Succeed, a job training and life skills program.  Also, Legacy Men’s Ministry serves men ages 18 and up through structured recreation, career readiness, job fairs and spiritual development.

A game between the West Memphis Ballers (blue) and the Neighborhood Christian Center teams.

The third stage is family enrichment services that provide ongoing support and education to promote strong marriages and family relationships. The Couples Enrichment Program serves over 200 couples annually.

The Yes! (Youth Empowered to Succeed) program promotes academic and spiritual guidance and training to children. In addition, the first-year program at Humes Preparatory Academy provides a Neighborhood Christian Center liaison who works with the parent and child when issues regarding absenteeism, behavior, and academics arise.

The fifth stage is Compassionate Ministries, which provide spiritual guidance, food, clothing, utilities assistance and life guidance to clients.

One of the monthly programs is the mobile pantry. Food items are loaded by staff and volunteers in the cars of the clients from refrigerated trucks. The food warehouse is located at one of the centers in the Binghampton community. The food trucks visit areas in 10 ZIP codes monthly.

Pantry items include fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, cereal and juices.

Klondike resident Floyd Killion, 60, has been going to the center for the last three years and he utilizes the food pantry as well as the mobile pantry. Killion, whose disability check is $965 monthly, said he is grateful for the efforts of the center.

Tony Jeffries, a player on the West Memphis Ballers, stands for portrait at the Neighborhood Christian Center during a game against the center's team.

“It’s a big help. I go up to food pantry and get a few can goods and few perishable items. It lasts about a week, but it helps me survive between checks,” he said adding that when he was eligible for food stamps it was only $14 a month.

Tammie McKuhn, director of the Compassionate Ministries, said that her program responds to crisis situations for the clients. 

“We handle situational trauma when there’s not enough food, housing or money,” she said adding that the nonprofit is a family business and the services can be immediate and not bound by governmental restrictions.

McKuhn, an employee since 2009, believes that working at the center has been a learning and growing experience for everyone.

“We learn from the people we serve, how to be humble, thankful for the little things,” she said. “We take care of the least of these.”

That includes offering clients access to the many programs such as after-school programs and early childhood development that are available even though they may have initially been drawn in by the food bank.

Charles Banks, a family enrichment counselor with the Neighborhood Christian Center's Legacy Men's Ministry, keeps score at the table during a basketball game at the center's gym.

“We have the wrap-around care where we take care of the whole family, not just the issue,” McKuhn said. “It’s not about you, but serving God and taking care of his people.”

The center’s operating budget is $2.8 million for all six locations with over $1.5 million of that amount for the Jackson Avenue location. Staff members number 24 with an average of 200 volunteers who serve per year.

About 60 percent of funding comes from church and individual donations while the remaining 40 percent from grants and foundations.

Johnson said the average income for their clientele is $12,000 a year in a household of four or more which is far below the national average of $51,000 for a family of four.

The center serves 1,611 heads of households at the Jackson location on a monthly basis.

“The vision of the Ballards in helping others is to leave a legacy for others to follow,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to supplement those situations to make it work. The kindness you show them (clients) today will last a lifetime.”

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Read more articles by Thelma Balfour.

Thelma Balfour has been a freelance writer for USA Today and Newsweek. She also worked as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis. She is the author of two books, Black Sun Signs: An African American Guide to the Zodiac and Black Love Signs.