Nonprofits step up to help as majority in Chattanooga's violence reduction call-in meeting seek help

photo Katrina Couch, left, and Stephanie Toombs talk about their effort to help people with professional clothing for job interviews. Step uP Chattanooga, which was founded by Toombs, is among the organizations helping offenders with Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative.

HOW TO HELPStep uP Chattanooga is looking for accessories, men's dress socks, shoes, women's jewelry, purses, portfolios, wallets, belts and clothes. Monetary donations can be made through The Community Foundation designated for Step uP Chattanooga. To contact Toombs, email her at•••HOPE FOR THE INNER CITYOverview: Offers a variety of programs including a dental clinic, jobs program, literacy program, housing and ministry.How it's helping with VRI: The organization's Jobs for Life is a 10-week program that teaches self-sufficiency and includes computer literacy and GED testing. Its Father to the Fatherless initiative provides mentors, or "surrogate fathers," to those who have roadblocks because of criminal histories, lack of education or poverty. Vincent Boozer oversees both programs at Hope for the Inner City. People in the program are tracked for at least two years. "You never stop being a father," Boozer said.Executive director: Paul GreenFund balance: $362,646 as of January 2013. The organization has applied to receive funding from the city. Public contributions made up 63 percent of funds.To help or get more information: Call 423-698-3178.•••UNITED WAY OF GREATER CHATTANOOGAOverview: Focuses on uniting services including support and education-related organizations that promote the stability of vulnerable populations.How it's helping with VRI: Will help provide job skills, training and give access to its network.President and CEO: Eva DillardFund balance: $23.6 million as of December 2012. Public contributions made up 87 percent of its funds.To help or get more information: Call 423-752-0300•••CHATTANOOGA GOODWILL INDUSTRIESOverview: Provides job training and other resources to help people become self-sufficient members of the work force.How it's helping with VRI: Will help with jobs and training.President and CEO: Dennis BriceFund balance: $4.9 million as of December 2012. Two percent of the money is from public contributions.To help or get more information: Call 423-629-2501•••BREAKING THE CYCLEOverview: Seeks to educate and provide life coping skills to men who are returning home from prison.How it's helping with VRI: Plans to open a transitional home with nine beds for men, if needed, as well as outreach and support. The program lasts for 12 months.Executive administrator: The Rev. Dwight Harrison. Harrison has a talk show with the program's name on 96.1 The Beat.Fund balance: Harrison's organization does not have nonprofit status.To help or get more information: Call 423-320-3824.•••STEP UP CHATTANOOGAOverview: This Christian-based organization helps job seekers by enhancing professional image, training for advancement and developing leaders. A location was recently set up inside Emma Wheeler Homes. The organization partners with job programs to help with clothing needs.How it's helping with VRI: Will provide access to a clothes closet for people looking for work.Founder: Stephanie ToombsFund balance: The organization, which has been run by volunteers for several years, has not yet filed for nonprofit status. It relies on donations of clothing.•••A BETTER TOMORROWOverview: Equips at-risk youths with life skills and provides mentors.How it's helping with VRI: Director Richard Bennett is the point person for the Chattanooga violence reduction initiative when people from the call-in reach out for help. Bennett directs them to the other resources that are committed to helping with the city's initiative. He also assigns a mentor.Director: Richard BennettFund balance: $4,496 as of December 2012. The organization has applied to receive funding from the city. Public contributions make up 99 percent of the contributions.To help or get more information: Call 423-485-1012•••LAUNCHOverview: Emphasizes the power of entrepreneurship to pull people out of poverty.How it's helping with VRI: A 10-week course teaches people how to start a business. When participants finish the program, they can choose to be partnered with a business mentor.Executive director: Hal BowlingFund balance: LAUNCH is part of a public-private partnership that is funded in part under an agreement with the state.To help or get more information: Call 423-523-9307.•••OPERATION PULL (People United Living Love)Overview: Focuses on outreach and intervention to reduce violence.How it's helping with VRI: The Rev. Greg Miller, a former cocaine dealer, founded the organization. Miller has his own construction company, Brilliant Paint and Construction, and will employ some of those who need work.Founder: Greg MillerFund balance: PULL is a program at Olivet Baptist Church, but Miller plans to apply for nonprofit status.To help or get more information: Call 423-314-9727.•••FIRST THINGS FIRSTOverview: Focuses on reducing divorces and out-of-wedlock pregnancies and increasing father involvement. First Things First believes a stronger community is made through stronger families.How it's helping with VRI: Will help with job skills, training and GED support.CEO: Julie BaumgardnerFund balance: $165,078 as of December 2012. Public contributions made up 42 percent of its funds.To help or get more information: Call 423-267-5383.Source: Financial records from the state's Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming

This could be one of their stops, these men trying on a new man.

Here, inside a small red-brick-and-cement-block duplex in the heart of Emma Wheeler Homes public housing, out-of-work felons can shed their street uniform for one some of them may never have known.

Dress shirt. Tie. Jacket. Some of the labels read J. Crew and Ralph Lauren. Designer duds with a pocketful of possibilities.

These clothes are just one piece of transforming men offered an alternative to crime, a chance to become productive and successful members of the community through the city's violence reduction initiative (VRI).

Clothes can translate to more confidence in a job interview, said Stephanie Toombs, who oversees the nonprofit Step uP Chattanooga. And landing a job can lead to a different path in life.

That's what Mayor Andy Berke hopes will happen for the men who took part in the city's first violence reduction call-in just over a week ago. Step uP Chattanooga is among at least nine nonprofits that have pledged to help, if needed.

The early signs from that call-in seem promising.

Out of the 13 men who attended the meeting on March 20, all but three have called for help, said Richard Bennett, director of A Better Tomorrow, the primary contact point for those wanting assistance.

Two of the men needed an immediate source of income. Bennett found both of them restaurant jobs.

Of all the men who have reached out, four have been matched with mentors, he said.

There has even been movement among the 12 men who didn't show up for the call-in.

Paul Smith, the city's public safety coordinator, has begun to make custom notifications for them, going to their homes and meeting with them or their family.

Last week Smith and Chattanooga police Lt. Todd Royval went to visit one man who did not show up. He wasn't home.

They spoke to his mother. He called Royval on Monday.

"The bottom line is we don't want any of these guys killed or locked up," Smith said. "We need them to influence people in their neighborhoods and communities."


This apartment at Emma Wheeler Homes doesn't look much like an apartment.

Purses for her and ties for him hang neatly from white pegboards. Displays of professional clothing decorate the plain walls.

Shiny racks feature gently used clothes, some with designer labels.

Toombs hopes to use the clothes to help get the men in the VRI program through the door to a job. Other organizations have signed on to help those who need to get a GED or drug counseling or learn interview skills.

"The street has its own uniform code. So wherever you go, there is some sort of uniform you have to adapt to," Toombs said.

The spot at Emma Wheeler, which opened this week, is the first location for the nonprofit she has been operating with volunteers for the past five years. She partners with job training organizations and visits the graduates of the programs before their job interviews.

Toombs makes presentations on how to dress. Facial hair and sagging pants are among the topics addressed.

She understands that some of the participants come from neighborhoods where they might be ridiculed for dressing professionally for a job. She gives this advice: "If you can't wear these clothes home, leave them somewhere you can get to them."

Toombs hopes to form support groups for those job hunting and those who are new employees in the work force. She hopes to match them with mentors and speakers from the business community who can offer helpful advice.

At a Jobs For Life class held at Hope for the Inner City, another nonprofit participating in the VRI, she said she clad some of the young men in a preppy style -- khakis and blue blazers.

"It was like Christmas with the way they appeared. They said, 'I've never had anything like this,'" Toombs said.


Toombs admits that this was not her target audience when she started the endeavor, but she says helping young felons needs to take priority in the city. And help needs to be made available in the neighborhood to make it feel within reach.

One person told Toombs that she was scared to go into the public housing projects.

"You have to go where they are," she said.

Along the way, a seed of hope has been planted.

"People are hurting due to a lack of a lot of things. This is pretty much the ghetto," said Katrina Couch, who lives in Emma Wheeler and plans to help with Step uP as a personal shopper. "People hurt. You have a lot of young men who don't know how to dress because they haven't been taught to be productive or how to present themselves in a certain manner.

"I think it's really going to hit home here. "

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at