Columbia's War on Poverty: The next big thing

Yes, it is a little weird to refer to anything in the poverty services community as “The Next Big Thing,” but what we are talking about is The Opportunity Campus and it really is pretty cool. Most importantly, it will make a big difference for people who are facing homelessness in Columbia; it will save lives.

Probably the last Next Big Thing was Welcome Home’s new shelter for veterans facing homelessness, built in 2016. Amazing work is being done from that facility over on Business Loop 70, and just having it provides a focal point for efforts to help veterans facing homelessness. It is a perfect example of how successful efforts breed successful efforts.

Certainly, beyond the occasional Next Big Thing, we see myriad steps forward and even minor miracles all the time in local poverty services. Love Columbia is a great example of what comes from just doing the work, day in and day out. Most had not heard of the organization ten years ago, and today it is a vital force in our community, in terms of helping people facing poverty at all levels. At The Salvation Army, Love Columbia is definitely one of the two or three organizations to whom we most often refer people for help.

Job Point goes on the list of hard working organizations generating miracles every day. They faced near bankruptcy not so long ago, before the turnaround led by executive director Steve Smith. Today, it is a leader in helping people living in poverty learn new job skills, find work, and build fulfilling lives that many thought impossible for themselves.

That brings us back to The Opportunity Campus, poised to make a huge impact on the poverty services community and a real difference in people’s lives. How? The larger answer is lots of hard work, but then there is also the $6 million recently allocated to the project by the State of Missouri. Obviously, this is a pretty nice boost to the effort.

What, exactly, is it? The Opportunity Campus is essentially a project of the Voluntary Action Center, first discussed under the leadership of past executive director Nick Foster. He got the ball rolling, and it began to take shape under his successor Ed Stansberry, who brought on longtime local nonprofit leader Mark Palmer to really make it happen.

Really, The Opportunity Campus will be a bunch of things. At its core, it will be Columbia’s newest shelter for people facing homelessness, significantly expanding our city’s capacity to provide a warm, safe place to stay. And, boy, do we need the extra help!

Beyond just adding more beds, though, The Opportunity Campus will provide a central location for any number of organizations in the poverty services community. The Voluntary Action Center will move its offices there. Even better, Room at the Inn, Turning Point, and Loaves and Fishes will all have permanent locations there for the first time, and all in one place, making it so much more convenient for them to work together, and so much easier for our neighbors facing homelessness who need them.

There is still a long road ahead for The Opportunity Campus — at least a few million more to raise, so many details to figure out, and then the facility to actually build — but it will all happen, and it will make a huge difference for people in desperate need.

The rest of us in the poverty services community just need to do what we can to support them — they can definitely count on us here at The Salvation Army! — and we need to make sure it benefits everybody by giving us one more reason to work together. The Next Big Thing is important, and it can be so much more if we use it as a rallying point to strengthen us all.

Major Curtiss Hartley is a leader of The Salvation Army in Mid-Missouri, with facilities in Columbia and Jefferson City. The Salvation Army provides a wide range of community services to address poverty and other issues, seeking to rebuild lives and create lasting change.

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