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Grace Hill's Member Organized Resource Exchange: In Their Own Words

Dr. Theresa Mayberry-Dunn, former president/CEO, Grace Hill Settlement House; Vickie Lomax, board member and resident ambassador; and George Eberle, former executive director (1960 – 1998), talk about the program in their own words.

Dr. Theresa Mayberry-Dunn
President/CEO, Grace Hill Settlement House
St. Louis, Missouri

I’m the oldest of four girls. My mom was a bookkeeper and my dad worked at O’Hare Airport in the Gold Bullion room, the first African American to do so. When I was nine, my parents divorced and my mother remarried. My stepfather was one of the first African-American union truckers for the AFL-CIO. It was my grandmother’s ethos that set the standard; everybody in her family had to go to school. I have 54 first cousins and 80% of them have college degrees. This is due to my grandmother—she believed that the only way out of poverty was education.

At Grace Hill we believe that any person, given the right tools and the opportunity, can improve their life. It is what we believe; it is our vision of the work. We are proud that forty percent of the people who work for Grace Hill are residents of the communities we serve. We believe that our responsibility is to give our staff, as well as those we work with, the education and the tools to be able to better their lives.

It is not professionals but people from the community who run our neighborhood centers and ensure that programs meet the needs of residents. Our neighbors determine what programs we deliver and what programs need to be added. The professional’s job at Grace Hill—mine included—is to raise funds to meet the needs that are identified and to create the infrastructure that supports the agency and its programs. It is not unusual when I do interviews, particularly in a neighborhood site, for a volunteer to say, Okay Dr. Dunn, what good things are going to come out of this for us? Why are you doing this? It’s that interest and level of engagement that makes Grace Hill unique.

Our core work started on the north side of the city. This is the most devastated area of the city, where a vast numbers of houses are gone, boarded up. You see blocks and blocks of vacant land. There is a written city plan that allowed the north side to deteriorate over the last three decades. The north side is where many, many poor people live. It is here where a very large African-American population resides. On this side of the city there are no major grocery stores, and public transportation and services are inadequate. No hospital, one bank, and a few local businesses. Grocery stores, drug stores, bus lines, they don’t exist here: not, not, not, not, not. So part of the challenge for people is daily living. Just getting your basic needs met.

The beauty of MORE [Member Organized Resource Exchange, a program of Grace Hill] is that it created an alternative economic option in neighborhoods. The designers of MORE saw the possibility of having an underground economic system that would aid those with the fewest resources. MORE is based upon bartering; one person knows how to sew and another knows how to cook, and they earn Time Dollars; they swap services. MORE formalized and computerized the process to allow multiple neighborhoods access to the system. Last year MORE touched about 30,000 people with its programs, Time Dollar being the most used component. MORE hosts a great number of social events that bring people together. Some events are social and informal and others are more focused, like political forums. These events foster social connection, new friendships, and create new supports in isolated communities. MORE connects people to resources, but most of all MORE gives its users a sense of hope.

Casey’s support
Casey supported something that was more concept than reality, a coordinated community system run by residents. The concept was unique and untried, and it is hard to raise funds for something like that. George Eberle [former executive director of Grace Hill] introduced [Casey Senior Vice President] Ralph Smith to the agency and the concept of MORE. Ralph came to believe in the approach and wanted to see if it [MORE Time Dollar] should be replicated. The foundation’s early support focused on training and replication.

The Foundation's support was powerful. It legitimized the Grace Hill vision and methodology, and it fostered a powerful message to people—residents, social service professionals, and everyday people. It said that what Grace Hill was creating was valuable enough to be taken other places. After I became president, Casey continued to believe in Grace Hill. The faith of the foundation through some rough times provided a much needed morale boost for the board and staff. It was a boon to an agency that was fighting back. Casey kept coming through for us, keeping the resident ambassador program alive and participating in the start up of the VITA (Voluntary Income Tax Assistance) program. Casey put money into infrastructure, leadership transition, strategic planning, and development, all essential to our transformation and survival. To me, Casey support underscored the importance of Grace Hill Settlement House, and its work in community development and leadership.

Vickie Lomax
Board member and resident ambassador, Grace Hill Settlement House
St. Louis, Missouri

North St. Louis, that’s where I grew up. My mother came from Mississippi, but I was born here, I’ve never been south. Civil rights might have touched this city, but not that much. Not as far as I can see, because there’s still a lot of prejudice in St. Louis. There’s still a lot of prejudice here, even today. The cost of living is not good. I think that’s taken a lot from people, you know, families trying to raise their kids. It’s kind of hard trying to raise a family when your income is not where it should be.

I worked for eight years as a nurse, and I got sick. After I stopped working I didn’t have insurance or anything. I’d heard about Grace Hill, the health clinic part. I went up to the clinic one day to see the doctor and after I got through I talked to the social worker and asked her if there was anything I could volunteer for, because I didn’t like sitting at home. I guess because I was so used to working.

She told me, Well, I’m going to take you over across the hall, and she told me about MORE, the Member Organized Resource Exchange, and she told me about the college classes that they have, so I signed up for the classes, and I started coming to all the classes that they had. And after that I started just coming every day to the classes and going to meetings and different things, volunteering for whatever they needed me to do.

The MORE program offers college classes for the neighbors, a financial literacy class and other classes too. Budgeting, saving money. And if they are first time homeowners, help with buying a house and cleaning up their credit. MORE’s Time Dollar program is where a neighbor earns Time Dollars. Like if you baby-sit for someone, or go to the store, or cut the grass. That’s what you do. You earn one Time Dollar for every hour of service that you do for somebody. Then you can spend your Dollars for services you need from someone else in the program.

I have over 5,000 Time Dollars. I have 5,196 Time Dollars. A lot of times I donate mine back, because sometimes seniors aren’t able to earn Time Dollars for one reason or another. Or I donate them to the neighbors if they need them. Sometimes at the Time Dollar Shop we have household items like washing powder, bleach, toilet paper, personal items that they can purchase for one Time Dollar. It helps, especially at the end of the month. You know how sometimes you run out of money, and you can’t purchase washing powder, bleach with food stamps? So that’s what they might need at the end of the month, because a lot of them get food stamps in the beginning and there’s nothing left at the end.

I also volunteer as a resident ambassador. There’s lots of things we do as resident ambassadors right in our neighborhood. Like somebody might say to me, My young cousin, she’s got one baby and just got rid of a no-good boyfriend and is trying to figure out her life but doesn’t know what to do, could you talk to her? I involve them, try to get them in the programs. Like our college classes, like a program for teen mothers, get them involved in different programs like Time Dollars. The families are so used to not having anything, and I think that’s why I’m glad about the MORE program, as far as the Time Dollars, like when they want to come shop, it makes them feel like they’re not begging, or you not handing them anything. They’re earning it so a lot of them feel better about themselves.

George Eberle
Executive Director, Grace Hill Settlement House (1960 – 1998)
St. Louis, Missouri

I was introduced to what settlement houses were in graduate school. It was 1954, and I worked as a boy’s worker, that’s what they called it. In the evening you work with the teens. My own sense of what I wanted to do, to be, occurred in that setting. Social work was the center of it for me. Grace Hill was critical in that it provided me an opportunity and place and support to do that kind of work.

What I did realize was that the big mistakes we were making were because we didn’t have an empowerment model. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but social workers now, contrary to the early history of the settlement movement, live elsewhere. They come into the neighborhoods to work 9-5. But the settlement house mission was different; it was about being a movement and that was the most exciting and interesting thing to me. I became a program director in 1958 and executive director of Grace Hill from 1960 until I retired.

The people in the neighborhood then were low income urban whites. Thankfully we don’t use the term any more but they were considered the “underclass.” They were immigrants from the rural parts of the Midwest. They came to the city to get jobs and they all thought that they’d earn enough money and then go back home, which of course they never did.

Settlement houses—the founders—lived in the neighborhood. They did not have clients, they had neighbors, and their community had problems, and they worked together to improve the community. What happened in the 20’s and moving into the 30’s was the idea that funders now wanted a different kind of performance. So the pressure to satisfy the funders meant the creation of a professional class of social workers. Soon people in the settlement houses for the most part no longer lived in the neighborhood.

But the fuel for making change back to the older model came about because of LBJs War on Poverty and that became an avenue for the development of very good professional African American practitioners. Many settlement houses became almost entirely black agencies. The neighborhoods had become African American and in the 1960s they were serviced by people who lived in that neighborhood, in this case African Americans. There was a ready supply of competent, capable people who lived in these neighborhoods.

Now at about that same time, we had created a bartering exchange and we called it MORE, Members Organized Resource Exchange. We had a food pantry or a couple of them. Now at the same time there was a guy Edgar Kahn who came up with the idea of Time Dollar. So that’s essentially the same thing. So we started calling ours the MORE Time Dollar Exchange. We did work with Edgar quite a bit.

The Time Dollar thing—we logged in sixty, seventy thousand volunteer exchange hours a week! They got monthly statements about how many MORE Time Dollars they earned and the statement told them how much they had spent. But that wasn’t the central part of it. The central part of it was their being involved in all of the work for change in their community and they were very supportive of each other. Most neighbors at that time if you would ask them about it they would simplify it down and say well, we call it neighbors helping neighbors.

Here we had all of these elderly people sitting in their homes, in their apartments. They had a rich tradition. Then you had all these kids in school who had no sense of tradition. So what we did is we taught the elderly how to tell stories, and they went to the public school and told their stories to these neighborhood kids. They told the neighborhood kids what it was like growing up and how they did this and how they did that, and the kids were just enthralled by all this. And as a result any kid who went to one of those sessions had to pay a Time Dollar, and the seniors who did it earned Time Dollars. So there were a lot of kids looking around for ways they could pick up a few more Time Dollars, which led them into relationships through the community that were helpful. I think that kind of exchange is really critical to have, extremely helpful.