Framework for Success

By Connie Haas Zuber

Framework for Success

Building relationships to improve lives

Like anywhere, Fort Wayne has people in need.

Like only the best places to live, Fort Wayne has always had people who see a need and respond intelligently to it. That’s why we have the arts, cultural and human services infrastructure we enjoy today.

Today, Fort Wayne has a group of people who stepped forward in their turn to care intelligently about people in need. Tomorrow they hope to spread what they’ve learned all over town and — they hope — to other places, too.

They call what they’ve learned The Framework, and they’re excited and proud not only because they can demonstrate how simply and directly they’ve been able to grow what they call communities of need into communities of hope. They’ve done the research, and they’re aware of academic studies that explain why The Framework has been so successful. They’re proud to have the additional data and theory endorsements as they begin to expand their work.

“It’s not just four programs,” said co-founder Donny Manco, artist and owner of New Republic Tattoo studio. “It’s four programs that are seeds now ready to hatch other programs.

“Our boots seem new, but this is not our first rodeo. Now we have a path: ‘Let me take you into this community, show you this dynamic, model it for you and give you the tools to recreate this community somewhere else.’”

He uses a metaphor to explain how much they have done with next to no budget.

“It’s like a plant, and I have only one bottle of water and I have to nurture it with that bottle until it blooms,” he said. “But we’re building irrigation ditches and the rain will come and the ditches will be ready. We are building a path like you build an ark. This thing doesn’t just work. It works effectively and efficiently.”

The Framework is the model inside four all-volunteer community-building programs that have been established  since about 2005 and made a difference at Canterbury Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Beacon Heights public housing, Lawton Skatepark and Charis House.

“Things really have grown and are starting to take off,” Manco said. “I’m stoked by that.”

With The Framework, Manco and his fellow volunteers have managed to find genuine, heartwarming success within very realistic expectations of what they can do and what they have to do it with. None of the programs just provide whatever things people need, and none even imagines waving a magic wand and eliminating the neediness of the people there. Instead, the programs connect lives — the lives of the people living in these places, the lives of the volunteers and where it’s logical the lives of people living and working near the communities — and create hope.

“You don’t have to eliminate need to do that,” Manco said. “You just have to bring hope, real hope. Where you have opportunity, there is hope. Where there is connection, there is hope. Where you have the ability to reach outside your community into the lives of people who are focused on bringing you opportunity, you have hope.

“We can do it efficiently,” he continued. “They are working examples so we can bring others in so you can see how it works. It’s difficult to quantify, though we have tried. At least half of what you are trying to quantify is community. It’s easy to quantify how many dollars it takes, how much food we are going to raise, but the thing is that you just have to be there to learn, to experience. That other 50 percent is how to interact, how to regard these people, how to earn their trust by answering their questions without giving them BS, to be there and when they ask you for something be honest. If you can’t provide it, tell them why and talk with them about how maybe together you can develop the resourcefulness you are talking about. ‘Donny, we want to have Christmas this year.’ Well, here’s our bottle of water. How do we become more resourceful?”

What has become The Framework grew organically out of and beyond a church project.

“I’ve known Donny for years. We were involved in a church plant together,” said Paula Wright, a Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company customer service representative who takes responsibility for the Canterbury program. “He started the bingo at Canterbury, and the gentleman he was working with there was in rehab and got ready to leave. I would volunteer and help him. When that gentleman was leaving Canterbury and going to Beacon Heights, that’s when I took over the bingo at Canterbury.”

The Canterbury program centered on that gentleman’s realization that the place needed a feeling of community.

“The man Donny knew felt like there wasn’t anything consistent that the residents were doing,” she said. “He felt they needed something to look forward to. He was the foundation in making that happen.”

A nursing home/rehab center “is not a fun place to be, you know, but it makes you feel good to know you are bringing some hope and some joy into someone’s life that is pretty much bound there,” she said.

The Framework can’t make the people at a nursing home not need to be there, obviously, but it can — with the simple tactic of being there every week to play bingo and offering useful or tasty prizes — create a space in which the residents get to be their whole selves, interact with others positively and relax and have fun for a while.

Wright is very grateful that the staff has accepted the bingo nights positively and now reminds people that it’s happening and even helps people get to the bingo room.

“I’d say close to half of the people who come are wheelchair-bound or have some disability that keeps them from being able to walk,” Wright said. “Very few walk down.

“They are just sweet people. You just have to love them. They are so appreciative. They look forward to it every week. We get there and there are smiles on their faces, and we enjoy getting to know them. We talk about their families and if they are going to have surgery and things like that. It’s definitely a relationship you start building with them.” They laugh and joke together during the bingo games with old but still funny quips like someone answering the game caller’s “I!” with “I have two eyes!”

She feels changed because of this particular volunteer work.

“I would say it makes me much more aware,” she said. “I had been in nursing homes, visiting a family member on occasion. It’s very humbling to go in there and realize that is their life. We have such freedom and they don’t. It makes me appreciative, and I appreciate the staff that works there, too.

“They do an incredible job. I could not work there all the time, day in and day out to provide all that is needed. Getting to know people with that exposure was totally new to me."

Wright, her son and her mother provide the prizes, either personal care items or snacks, as the financial portion of their service. She also volunteered at Charis House, where Framework volunteers cooked a meal on a weekend day when no meals were provided. That program was interrupted when Charis House moved to its new location, and she hopes it can be revived.

“I’d love for The Framework to provide exposure so we can get more people to do more nursing homes,” she said. “I would guess that they all could benefit from something like this. It doesn’t have to be bingo. It just has to be an activity. I’m sure the activity directors would enjoy someone providing something else for residents to do.”

She was delighted by the turnout to The Framework’s first public meeting in December. It was designed to introduce new people to the process and network opportunities to become involved.

“I really think it is sort of unlimited what it can accomplish,” she said. “I love networking to meet new people and find out what makes them tick and what’s going on in their lives. (At the meeting) were all these people I’d never met, and we started talking about what they are doing and how that can be a part of this. I don’t know where the limits are to what this can touch.”

Phil Pelz, a Leo native and IPFW graduate who is director of Youth, Family and Children at Promise Ministries, took charge of the community at Beacon Heights a few years ago. He and Manco also have known each other for quite a while, starting with when Pelz got a tattoo from Manco.

“We hit it off,” he said. “We share a lot of the same passions, and we saw the same needs.”

Once they started working with the communities, they realized they were good at it, he said.

“We kept talking more and more about what it would look like to do this and make it replicable and have more people do it,” he said. “We talked every day for a long time.”

The initial puzzle at Beacon Heights, a Fort Wayne Housing Authority high-rise apartment building, was obvious: “You have tons of people living in close proximity, but there wasn’t community there,” he said.

Bingo is just the game they play there, and it’s what happens along with the bingo that is important.

“It’s free and a way to get them in the door,” he said. “You want to get people in the same area and give them a common goal to work for of getting a prize. It has grown tons for the residents there, whom we would say are the participants of the community. We see relationships built between the residents and the volunteers coming in.

“I think it starts with them taking a care for their brothers and sisters, their neighbors, and stopping focusing on themselves. It starts with them wanting more for themselves and for their community.

“I think they realize they are almost the outcasts of that area, and they want more than that. They don’t view themselves that way.”

The transformation to community of hope has happened at Beacon Heights. Manco and Pelz point to how people who live there have stepped forward and now lead their own activities. First there were movie nights in addition to the bingo. Then the manager said they could use a closet for a food pantry. Now there are occasional breakfasts with videos in the community room, and the residents organized and served a complete Thanksgiving dinner in November with The Framework volunteers helping them and joining the celebration.

Pelz also feels changed by his involvement with The Framework, more keenly aware of the hardships and limitations people in need face every day. And he has new friends.

“A year and a half ago, I walked into Donny’s shop and said ‘It just struck me that they are not just the residents of Beacon Heights. They are my friends. They aren’t a group or a category. They are my friends that I care for, and I assume I would be there for in time of need,’” he said.

The Framework finds a different set of needs every time someone walks into a new place intending to go through the process. The nursing home residents are bound to one place but need to live as their whole selves. The Beacon Heights people can come and go, but they have fewer resources than most and endure being stigmatized as public housing residents. At Lawton Skatepark, The Framework was built among mobile youth with a shared interest and already a shared community.

“They know each other. They had community there before we came, but it was a dysfunctional, street community based on toughness,” Manco said. “It’s the only version Fort Wayne has of that scene in every movie where the street kids come up. Fort Wayne is big enough. We’re grown up. We have street kids.”

He said he felt like a National Geographic explorer sometimes at Lawton Park.

“Schools don’t measure toughness or how resilient a kid is, how many times that kid will get back up again when you knock him down,” he said. “Those kids need someone out there working on the other side, the side a kid will never learn if he’s not resilient. He’s never back in school the next day if he’s not resilient.

“I did some research. Several things are considered at-risk factors for kids. If you have two or more, you are at risk. These kids have many. Resilience takes toughness, but toughness can become callousness.

“Now they have an alternative network. We just started showing up.” The kids wanted to know who they were and what they were doing. Manco told them they were skating and kept talking and watching.

“I started to see the alpha males come around,” he said. “The first people who come are the people who want protection. Then the alpha males come around wanting to know who you are and what you want.” Now he told them he wanted to help, to hang out and skate with them. They started a program on Sundays. Anyone who had gotten in trouble couldn’t skate that day.

“There’s a rumor mill. We hear it,” he said.

“Then you identify the positive people who are leaders, the ones that are helping kids up not just literally but figuratively, and that’s when you’re in business,” he said. He found leaders already there with the right attitude: “Get up. Don’t stay down. Do it again. You were close. You got hurt, you fell, but you aren’t damaged. Do it again.

“We found four people already there, already known in that community but not working together. They were positive examples shining on their own, and you think ‘What if I took these people and formed a team?’ That’s what I did with the tattoo team. All those leaders together? In that community, it’s like a summit.”

As winter approached, the tattoo team realized they wouldn’t be able to continue meeting to skate at Lawton and taking kids on road trips to other skateparks. They needed money, enough money to rent and equip an indoor skating space, and they wanted an actual bus so more kids can go on future skatepark visits. The team leaders knew they didn’t know how to raise money, he said, “but that’s what The Framework has spent the last year learning how to do. I told them ‘let me empower you because now, look, this is you doing this.’ It’s the model. I work and you watch; I work and you help; you work and I help, and you work and I watch.”

Learning to raise funds is a turning point for The Framework, a coming of age, and Manco approached it with great care. He doesn’t want to ask for anything he cannot justify, for example, so the skate team studied its needs down to how much fuel a salamander would burn in each hour of heating the indoor skating space in the winter. They found a place to buy a 50-passenger used school bus for only $2,500. The bus is important, Manco said, because they’ve learned that the strongest encouragement for the kids not to get in trouble is so they are eligible to travel to the other skateparks. They enjoy the new skating experiences, he said, and the pride of having Lawton as their home park. Lawton Skatepark is well known and widely admired.

“Fort Wayne has the best skate park we have been to,” Manco said. “Kudos to the park. When they did it, they did it right.”

In his turn, he felt powerful motivation to learn to raise money, he said.

“If I did not ask people for resources, I would not be doing the program justice,” he said. “I’m ready to talk about it in a social science way, a business way, a civic way and a charitable way. It’s been a long time coming.”

Manco, Wright and Pelz agree that implementing a program like The Framework is somehow easier, more doable in Fort Wayne than they believe it would be elsewhere. They see Fort Wayne as especially, if not uniquely, open to people like them with an idea like theirs.

“We’ve made some really good contacts all around town that are helping drive what’s happening,” Manco said. The Framework is incorporated as a non-profit, thanks to the help of a local attorney. Manco learned a lot about how to introduce The Framework to potential donors and supporters from a local businessman to whom he was introduced by a mutual acquaintance.

“It’s that sort of connection that people are afforded in Fort Wayne,” he said. “I’m not anybody, but this guy will talk to anybody and he afforded me this one angle that will help me with community participation. Fort Wayne is lucky. I wish I could include that in the universal model, but there are communities out there way less prepared for a program like The Framework. It depends on how intact the fabric of the community is. You might have to build the infrastructure we have.”

Wright was not surprised at the December networking meeting when one of the women who attended remarked that Fort Wayne was the one city she could think of where such a program could succeed.

“To me, it’s like a big city with so many things available yet it is small enough that people still connect and do things together. People don’t seem quite so isolated as in larger cities,” she said. “We have a lot to offer here.”

Pelz counts his passion for Fort Wayne as important as his passion for working with the people who live on the outskirts of society.

“I just love Fort Wayne,” he said. “I think Fort Wayne is the best city in America or at least is in the process of becoming it.”


Editor’s note: This story is about the latest instance of a characteristic of this city that I noticed as a newcomer back in the 1970s. Unlike other cities with which I had experience, Fort Wayne has a self-contained sense of itself and demonstrates its capacity over and over again to address needs and problems on par with much larger cities. That self-contained nature and ability to marshal resources purposefully is why Fort Wayne has an orchestra, an art museum, a history museum, a ballet (or two), a thriving community theater scene, a modern dance company (or several), galleries, touring Broadway shows, an active local music scene and some publishing companies — all that in addition to what its colleges and universities add to the cultural scene. The city also has a higher-than-average number of non-profits addressing a wide variety and depth of human services needs — all that in addition to what its public sector and churches add to the human services sector. 
And now it has The Framework. I have talked to Donny Manco, one of its founders and its main spokesperson for this piece, several times about The Framework as he and its other volunteers prepared to replicate their successes. I quickly identified it as one of those Fort Wayne things (see a need and create a way to address it) and found myself as proud and as excited about it as anyone directly involved. Manco has done quite a bit of research, and his results agree with what I have learned as a journalist and a graduate student in sociology: The Framework is impressive for being authentically rooted in this particular place, seeing itself as a natural outgrowth of this city’s culture, as well as for its grassroots, one-on-one engagement that turns individuals who could be dismissed as needy strangers into lifelong friends. 
Manco and his fellow Framework volunteers feel ready to share the wealth of community strength their first ventures have demonstrated can be developed really quite simply. They believe Fort Wayne is unusually able to generate such wealth. They know the need is visible in so many places if we just look. Their optimism is infectious; their experience is solid, and their hearts are most emphatically in the right places. They feel their first open meeting inviting others to join in went well. The challenge is whether they can find people who can make the organic, authentic connections that turn what they call communities of need into communities of hope.
It is impossible not to wish them well.

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