Where We Go From Here | Episode 16
Gina Dessources Benjamin, Social Services Director
An extension of the Mount of Olives Evangelical Baptist Church, Mount Olives Community Center (MOCC) launched in September 2019, opening their doors and hearts to address the needs of the Haitian community around Boston. The following year our world would drastically change with the COVID-19 pandemic, and during this time MOCC persisted, consistently showing up for their community with compassion and essential services.
In this conversation, Gina Dessources Benjamin, Social Services Director, MOCC, walks us through the importance of funding to meet community needs, the power of the Haitian community, and the value of love and representation in community-centered organizations. Joining her is Robert Kagan, Manager, Consulting, at NFF.
In this video:
- How MOCC’s mission and Dessources’ love for serving her community made them the perfect match. (0:21)
- How MOCC has grown to become a pillar in the Boston area’s Haitian community (2:13)
- Why funding should be tailored to meet the needs of the organization and community it serves, and not the other way around. (3:17)
- How relationships with community are a driver of sustainability. (04:35)
- How hope, strength, and resilience prevail among Haitian people. (05:44)
- How listening to communities and partnering with government agencies can lead to successful programs. (07:10)
- What happens when services are designed to meet community needs. (08:23)
- Why it’s important for funders to understand the full costs of the organizations they are funding. (09:26)
- Why access to funding is crucial for organizations, like MOCC, to have a lasting impact. (11:15)
Want to learn more? Check out this written profile of MOCC on our website!
GINA: It's nice to be talking about our community and the strength and resiliency of our community.
ROBERT: Yes, absolutely!
ROBERT: Could you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about Mount Olives Community Center?
GINA: My name is Gina Dessources Benjamin, and I am the Social Services Director at Mount Olives Community Center. We’re located in Hyde Park, which is a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. And Mount Olives Community Center – or as I refer to it as MOCC, our acronym – was founded in September of 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic. We launched initially to respond to the growing social service needs of the Mount of Olives Evangelical Baptist Church next door, realizing that there is a greater community service need that we are equipped and able to provide.
ROBERT: So as a clinical social worker and someone studying for a degree in urban ministry, you have a really unique outlook on community and how to serve others. How does this background as well as your own lived experience affect your mission?
GINA: This has been a labor of love. I am Haitian myself, born in Haiti. I came to the US when I was little and wasn't really as connected with the Haitian community. But after the earthquake of January 12, 2010 was when I really became involved in the Haitian community, and at that time just feeling a need to help. And so I felt like I was really led to MOCC, and I was looking for a place where I could continue to serve my community, and we sort of found each other, and it was perfect synergy from then.
ROBERT: Great! Can you tell me a little more about how the center itself was founded?
GINA: So, the center was launched as a way to continue providing the social services to the members of the church so that the church could then focus on the spiritual growth of the community. And as services expanded, there was a greater community need. And then in the time of COVID, it's really served as a pillar in the community addressing such things as food security, bridging the digital divide within our community, still providing some youth services, but also mental health literacy. And now we are starting to embark on a space of workforce development, and that’s with our various partners. The partnerships have really allowed us to grow and build the center so that it could become the pillar in the community as it is becoming.
ROBERT: We've talked about this before, and I know you're getting into now, also, just this tension of trying to figure out: Where can we find funding? What are the programs that we can offer, as a result of what funders are willing to pay for? But also, being such a community-driven organization, how do we meet the needs first and deal with funding later? So I'm curious if we could just talk a little bit more just about that tension.
GINA: We're getting funded for programs, but not necessarily for building our foundation and really building the infrastructure that is necessary for us to continue on in a sustainable manner. And so it has been a challenge. So, while it's great to have the funding for the programs, it's really been a challenge to have the infrastructure in place to be able to sustain so that we're not crisis oriented and we're not a community-based organization that exists in the time of COVID. So, what is our vision and how do we sustain ourselves well beyond COVID and ensuring that the impact on the community is lasting?
ROBERT: Is there anything else that you'd like funders to know about working with an organization like yours? I know you're talking a lot now about, the need for that infrastructure, that need for that unrestricted general operating type of support. Is there anything else that you think is important for funders to know?
GINA: The fact that we are bilingual, bicultural, you know, we are members of the community. Our board is bilingual, bicultural, the folks who are volunteers or even our staff – we're starting to bring on some new staff – are also bilingual bicultural. And so we really understand the needs of the community because we're members of the community ourselves. So, this is not something that we do when we come to work; this is who we are. This is who we are. And so there's a lot of trust that the community has in us. And we've built relationships with the community, with our partners, and that's so important to what I was speaking of earlier in terms of sustainability.
ROBERT: You keep coming back to this idea of community, and it's so obvious how central it is to the work of the center. Can you just speak a little bit about your community? Give us a little bit of a sense of how you see your community?
GINA: The Haitian people are strong, are resilient, have a long history of being victorious, and triumph in spite of very difficult circumstances. You know, we're the first Black nation to gain its independence – that the slaves revolted and got independence. And that is something to be celebrated, but also with that has come a lot of challenges. And between natural disasters and political instability, our nation has really suffered. In spite of that, the people still hope that things will get better and work towards a better future and a better Haiti. And we are part of that. We hold that hope and we are working towards that better Haiti. And so, our work at MOCC is really focusing on empowering people, not only here, but so that we can have an impact across the globe really for Haitian people.
ROBERT: You've really partnered in a lot of ways with government, and I know that's something that's really hard to do, especially as a brand-new organization. Can you just speak to some of that partnership and any advice that you might have for other organizations that are looking to do the same?
GINA: Yes, so we've been blessed to work with the city of Boston, state agencies as well, Office for Refugees and Immigrants. Those came from having relationships – knowing that a grant proposal, or a call for proposals, came out, reaching out to the proper personnel just to introduce ourselves to them and to hear what they're looking for, in terms of what they're looking to fund, and really developing those relationships. We have direct access to the community, and so hearing the needs of the community and then hearing what these government agencies are looking for, in order to support the work that is being done in the community, by folks from the community, has been key to our success in collaborating with government entities.
ROBERT: Can you share a little bit about the impact that you're seeing out there, if you have any specific stories of something that's worth sharing?
GINA: You know, they are what gives my heart joy and keeps me motivated in doing this work. Seeing families come through the center and getting food at a time when food prices have skyrocketed. And the food that we provide is culturally specific foods. So, for folks to come in and to know that they will get Haitian staples that they will take home, and to be able to feed their families, that brings so much joy to us, to be able to serve in that capacity. Through our digital literacy program, I remember the first graduating class somebody came up and said, “I've never graduated from anything. This is the first time my name is on a certificate.” And that was really heartwarming to know that's the kind of impact that we're having.
ROBERT: It's so special to be able to work within community like that, and it's so common for services to be these time-limited pieces where you come into someone's lives and hope to make a real impact, but then you don't always know what happens after. And so, to be able to, again, really build these long-term bonds and see people grow over time is just incredible. What's something you wish people understood about the work that you do?
GINA: When you're looking at an organization and you see that needs are being met, that the community's being served, there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes. You know: the recruiting, and the maintaining relationships, and the talking with partners, and talking with funders, and the reporting. All of that behind-the-scenes work, it's very labor intensive and requires many hands, and people often think that we have a whole team, and we don't. Because we don’t have the capacity to build that team just yet. Trying to do the work with limited resources, it's a tall order. But we do it because we are so committed, we're so dedicated, and we do it because it's a way of serving our people. And it's a service to God. You know, for us, it's also a very spiritual experience, and we are humbled to be used in this manner to serve in people’s greatest hour of need. So it's not something that we take lightly. It really is an honor and a privilege to be able to serve in this capacity.
ROBERT: What are your hopes for the future of this work?
GINA: Oh, man! I think that really ties into having access to the funding so that we can really do the work that is needed and the work that our community deserves, to really see people go – and for us as an organization – to go beyond survival to thriving. We want to see a lasting legacy. We want to see the youth engage in this work so that as we get older and tired, that we can pass the baton to them. But passing the baton of something that that is strong and vibrant and continuing to make a lasting impact. And for them to take it to the next level.