Foundations Like Versacare and SFFC Impact Adventism in Fresh Ways

Written by: 
Published:
June 21, 2022

As the president/secretary of the Versacare Foundation, Tom Macomber oversees a self-funded organization with a board comprised both of lay Adventist Church members and current and former church employees. “We created the Versacare Foundation in 1985 as a vehicle to fund Adventist ministry efforts,” he says. “In 1990, we awarded our first grants, and we have funded 1,600 grants for $31 million since then. In the world of foundations, that's a small amount. However, within Adventism, that's a very significant amount of funds going towards ministry efforts—a large number of them going to individual efforts by congregations.” 

One notable recipient of funding from Versacare and another organization—the SFFC Foundation—is Caught Up, a nonprofit in Detroit organized by Toson Knight.

Detroit has a notorious history when it comes to education. Low test scores, poor funding, and economic downturns all contribute to one of the worst graduation rates in the nation, which in 2007 fell to fewer than 25 percent of incoming students going on to graduate. Caught Up targets low-income African-American, Latino, and Caucasian youth and young adults ages 14–20 in Southeast Detroit, running three main programs. The first is “Saturday Night Live,” a social event where youth can learn life skills, socialize, and play basketball—an alternative to the risks and antics often present on a Saturday night. The second program is Project Empower, which provides high school kids the opportunity to go on college tours and receive life skill training, a resource their schools lack funding for. Lastly, there is Project Re-entry, which works to provide incarcerated juveniles with professional attire and an opportunity to continue their high school education, receive a diploma, and find job placement. 

As ​​the Dean of Culture for Detroit Public Schools, Knight provides these services during his off-hours to make up for what schools cannot offer due to the lack of financial resources. Like many nonprofits, his work takes more than just money. Organizations like his require the financial support of individual donors, volunteers, and foundations like Versacare. It takes many hands to make light work.

“I grew up in Detroit / Highland Park, Michigan,” Knight says. “I grew up in a single-parent home, single mother. So all we had was my mother. Something I didn't think of until I was older was all my friends grew up without our fathers. We didn't have nobody really to look up to, for real.”

When asked how his father's absence motivates his current work, he replies, “​​I was thinking about my friend. He was killed when he was 15 years old, and his father was in prison. My boy who went to prison at 14, his father was killed when he was younger. And so, in our community, we never had anybody. So I'll be that person, you know, I would love to be that person. I consider it a privilege to do that.”

Knight’s deep investment in young lives is also rooted in his shared life experiences with many of the young men he supports. “When I got to about the sixth grade,” Knight remembers, “I got into my first little trouble with the law–I called in a bomb threat at school. And then just consistently throughout my school years. I was kicked out of a lot of different schools.”

If encountering the legal system, law enforcement, and angry principals wasn’t enough to change his trajectory, what was? 

“I ended up going to Oakwood university, and it just kinda changed my life. Just seeing how people handled things, seeing how Black individuals (I grew up in Detroit, so all I've been around was Black people) but to see Black people take their life seriously, who were spiritual, who really cared about their education. It just kind of blew my mind, honestly. I was just thinking about that the other day, like, dang, you know, when I was ready to go to college, my friends were going to jail, they were getting killed.”

By looking at the factors in his own transformation, Knight has found a model for reaching other young men in Detroit. 

“At Oakwood, it was like family. They really cared about you. They really looked to you like family. That was the biggest thing for me. It put me on a trajectory that I’m on now: to treat people like you really care about them and like they’re family. So many people looked after me. The woman whose been very impactful in my life is this lady named Ms. Adams. She helped me pay for college, gave me a place to stay, and cooked dinners all the time for us. Not only did she treat me like her son, but her sons treated me like a brother. It just changed my whole perspective on life and how to treat people. So I brought that back home with me.”

At the heart of Knight’s transformation was relationship. In addition to being treated with unconditional kindness, his community taught him practical lessons and life skills. 

“Just being around them showed me so much,” Knight recalls. “Even how they dressed. I’m from Detroit, and I'm over here wearing baggy pants. You know,” he reflects for a beat, “I never wanted to wear baggy pants. In Oakwood, they dressed the way I liked to dress, and I'm like, wow.”

“I tell kids in Detroit all the time,” he continues, “What you see in Detroit is not realistic at all. You got to unlearn everything that you learn. For example, choosing violence over conflict resolution. I tell my students all the time you can't show up late and think it's not a big deal. You can't curse out the teacher and think that you won't have consequences. You need to unlearn all of those foolish behaviors.”

Not everyone has the opportunity to relocate from Detroit, Michigan, to Huntsville, Alabama, and experience the Southern hospitality of the Oakwood family. So Knight brings the hospitality of Oakwood to Detroit. “Kids see how much I care about them and how much like I'll look out for them. I have to kind of take a step back because I do love helping them and love trying to change their perspective. At the same time, I have to be very careful that I'm not sending the wrong message, like it's just going to come this easy.” Learning when to step back and when to step in is a lifelong balancing act. 

“I saw some kids gambling,” Knight recalls one of his first encounters after Oakwood, “And I was like, oh, we got to cut this out. I’m about to call the police. I felt bad about calling the police on this one kid. So later that day, I saw the kid, and I went back and spoke with him, which started a whole relationship between us. I ended up getting him to Oakwood University. He got his GED, and then we went to Oakwood university.”  

Loving someone enough to call the police and then getting them into college takes a particular type of person. As a result of Knight’s work, 60 young men have moved on to higher education, some in community college and more than half as students at Oakwood University. 

***

From 2016 through 2020, the Versacare Foundation also funded STEM grants (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) totaling $2,985,000 to 392 Seventh-day Adventist lower education schools. In 2021, it pivoted to support a $300,000 grant to develop a STEM teacher training curriculum available to every teacher at every Adventist K–12 school in North America, including teachers in single-classroom schools in rural areas. That effort is ongoing, with participation by Loma Linda University EXSEED, the North American Division Education Department, and several Adventist college and university partners. 

Funding sources like the Versacare Foundation are important because they inspire cooperative ventures between different organizations. One of the foundations Versacare has cooperated with on a joint venture is SFFC. “In 2006, my funder family decided it was time to start giving back and they reflected on what had been important to them in their lives,” says Kelly Jackson Daughtery, SFFC Foundation executive director. “The funder's mother had become a shut-in, and a fifth-grade girl from the local church asked if she could visit her. Both of their lives changed. So they put all those pieces together, literally on sticky notes, and came up with a scholarship. Since 2006, SFFC has infused about $11.5 million into Adventist education. However, what's represented there that we're even more excited about is over 750,000 hours of visits between the students and senior mentors.” 

Foundations like Versacare and SFFC are vital to the world of nonprofits. Nonprofit efforts, like independent Adventist ministries, are idealist organizations, inspired by the possibility of a better future. To realize this vision, nonprofits are structured to focus on mission rather than increasing profit margins for shareholders. As a result, they are highly dependent upon grants and dedicate a significant amount of time to raising money. 

Caught Up is a model for programs that foundations like Versacare and SFFC desire to find and fund. The funding they get from Versacare and SFFC gives them easy, no strings attached access “into the building,” keeping the pipeline to success flowing. Thanks to the donor entities, Caught Up doesn’t require funding from anyone else.  

However, finding programs like these, programs that the average person and large foundations alike can discover and support, has proved to be more challenging than expected.  

It is tempting to put all our faith into established donor sites like Adventist Laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI). However, a single organization is not sufficient to provide the support needed for the many worthy nonprofits serving needs in North America. For example, in 2020, ASI Missions Inc. selected 45 projects to fund, stating their offering goal was $1.4 Million dollars to be given to organizations represented worldwide. While there are also local chapters of ASI, a single organization can only do so much.

Tom Macomber hopes that other foundations will follow Versacare’s lead in supporting local programs. “I only know of three really independent foundations, like Versacare,” in other words, foundations that are able to fund any initiative that fits within the parameters they decide to define. 

"I think Adventism needs to acknowledge that we are not following Ellen White’s counsel when it comes to evangelism,"1 he continues, "and until we change our approach, we will continue to struggle with it. Compared to the church at large, there are organizations that have seen exceptional growth by focusing first on the physical, social, and mental well-being, since out of that flows the spiritual—rather than [from] the emphasis on prophecy seminars." In other words, "social justice issues, women's and children's issues, youth and young adults. It is part of Versacare Foundation’s mission to be supportive of what concerned Christians want to do for their community.” 

It made me begin to wonder, what are concerned Christians doing for their community? What are the other types of ministries like Caught Up happening right under our noses? It is difficult to find a central database where all these nonprofits are listed. As Millennials and Gen Zers grow increasingly skeptical of how tithe is being allocated institutionally, many want a database of ministries to give their support to directly. At the moment, there is no such registry. 

For now, lists of past grant recipients from foundations like Versacare or ASI are all we have. But those exclude a wide variety of devoted community members doing their best with scanty means to make a meaningful impact in their community.  

It’s not just the uber-rich who should consider finding local causes to support. Macomber ends our conversation by saying, “My mother is 96 years old, and every month she writes three checks, and she puts them in the mail—a hundred dollars each to three different ministry efforts. She's been doing this for twenty or thirty years. And that's another demographic.” In the words of the classic hymn by Kittie L. Suffield, “Little is much, when God is in it.” 

 

To find out more information about Toson Knight, or if you’d like to support Caught Up and its mission, you can go to caughtup.org.

For a list of recent grants funded by Versacare Foundation, visit https://www.versacare.org/recent-grants/ 

This article was funded through support from Versacare and readers like you.

 

Notes & References:

1.  “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’” White, Ellen G. The Ministry of Healing. Pacific Press Pub. Association, 1905. p.143.

 


Kendra Arsenault, MDiv, is a graduate of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and host of the Imago Gei podcast.

Title image credit: Toson Knight / Versacare

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