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Project Hope MN Founder: Journey from worried mom to nonprofit founder

In 2014, Vanessa Jenkins’ ten-year plan didn’t include nursing a critically injured son back to health, getting her college degree, or founding a nonprofit. She was doing fine in Chicago, enjoying her job as a supervisor at the Social Security office.


Then came the phone call that turned Jenkins’ life upside down. She learned her son’s car had rolled over and caught fire. He was on life support at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Jenkins hurried to Minnesota to be with her son and ended up staying with the 23-year-old, first in the hospital and later in his apartment, as he recovered.


However, her son’s troubles weren’t over. Not long after the accident, his live-in girlfriend left without a word. “I watched him go through a lot of depression,” Jenkins recalls. “He needed someone to talk to.”


Jenkins transferred from Chicago’s Social Security Administration office to SSA’s St. Paul location. There, she met her new boss, a man who had survived a similar accident in his 20s, and offered to mentor her son during his recovery.


Jenkins’ son started healing and sharing his thoughts with his mom. He told her he wasn’t the only one who was depressed; many of his friends were, too. Jenkins couldn’t believe how many young Black men were pretending everything was fine when they were troubled. That was the genesis for Project HOPE MN, Jenkins’ nonprofit, in which the “HOPE” stands for Helping Overcome Poverty through Empowerment.


After receiving a $5,000 grant from Hennepin County for comprehensive health improvement, Jenkins recruited a small group of Black men who were mental health practitioners. In exchange for a stipend, they agreed to facilitate healing circles and offer one-on-one support on the second Saturday of each month.


“Black men don’t talk about their feelings and their emotions, and the only emotion that they’re allowed to have is anger. Anything else, they get chastised or ridiculed or belittled,” said Jenkins. To normalize grieving and vulnerability, she named the Saturday men's mental health sessions “Permission to Grieve.”


Jenkins also found a Black man who teaches yoga. Jenkins said, “I told him, ‘I don’t want you to do the yoga part, but I want you to teach the breathing and relaxation.’” She believes men who can calm themselves will be less likely to hurt their girlfriends, wives, and each other.


Since the healing circles are for men, Jenkins has never witnessed one, but she knows how the men look when they emerge. Sometimes, they’re in tears, and sometimes, they’re happy. On one occasion, the group talked a participant into handing over his gun after he told them about his plans to retaliate against someone who had disrespected him.


By helping men acknowledge and deal with their feelings, Project HOPE MN prevents domestic abuse. The non-profit also addresses domestic abuse with a program called “You Good, Sis?”


“I myself am a survivor of domestic violence,” said Jenkins, who sharpened her advocacy skills helping recipients of Social Security disability payments. As Project Hope’s executive director, Jenkins shares her “lived experiences of what people need, legal resources to be able to move or break a lease without getting an unlawful detainer, getting the children transferred, and just being able to have that support, someone to talk to, to know that you’re not alone.”


As part of the domestic abuse prevention arm, Project HOPE MN holds classes for girls and young women aged 11 to 18. The program, A Girl’s Safe Space, focuses on practical life skills–everything from building solid credit scores to avoiding teenage pregnancy. “We teach them life skills to help them return to their self-esteem, so they know the first time somebody puts their hands on you, it’s time to go. You can’t fix them; you’re worth more than that, and it’s not your job to heal somebody else.”


The final part of Project HOPE MN’s mission is housing stability, helping line up housing for people who struggle to find it. “We help find safe, affordable, permanent housing for individuals and families, particularly those with barriers, people who may have had a felony,” or a poor rental record. “We have a cohort of property managers as well as companies that are willing to give people a second chance because regardless of your background or your situation, everyone deserves a roof over their head,” said Jenkins.


Jenkins has used a $10,000 grant from the Allina Foundation to help people secure housing. One of her goals is to raise more money to guarantee reluctant landlords six months’ rent so they’ll consider providing housing for people with poor rental records.


Project HOPE MN is still a small operation, just Jenkins and a handful of fellow volunteers. With the Allina funds, they have accomplished a lot, but that grant is running out soon. That’s why the team is throwing its first annual HOPE Gala on May 18.


Senator Amy Klobuchar will be the keynote speaker at the event, which will be emceed by Sheletta Brundidge and held at the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Community Center in Minneapolis. The event's honorary co-chairs are Metropolitan Council member W. Toni Carter, mother of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, and Patina Park, Executive Director of Tribal State Relations for Governor Tim Walz.


The gala will include dinner, drinks, dessert, live music, dancing, a silent auction, and door prizes. For more information on the event and Project HOPE MN’s services, visit https://www.dontlosehopemn.org.


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