By Jennifer Colosimo
Last year, when COVID-19 changed most of the world as we knew it, it was the end of many businesses, not to mention careers. But while tragedy of all shapes and severity ensued, many nonprofit organizations actually grew. As the world’s economic system struggled, it seemed that a new spirit arose within humanity—one with a penchant for helping others and wanting to make it through this pandemic together.
Mission Oak Cliff is one of those organizations. Led by its new executive director, Kevin Pranoto, they helped more men, women and families than ever—and they’re still growing.
When Pranoto, a Houston native and former CBF staffer, was in his 20s, he had one important professional goal: He wanted to be an executive director by the time he turned 30. In pursuit of that goal, he earned a Master of Social Work at Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work and his Master of Divinity from Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary. He spent the next few years molding his skillset and experience into something that could put both degrees to work for greater good.
A chance meeting with the former senior pastor of Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas set him up for making his goal a reality. Shortly after, in late 2019, he accepted the position of executive director of Mission Oak Cliff in Dallas, Texas, a branch of Cliff Temple Baptist Church serving its community through a food pantry, a clothing closet, homeless services, a counseling center and more. He was 29.
“I started working at Mission Oak Cliff only five months before the pandemic hit; but during those five months I was really intentional about meeting and collaborating with other nonprofit agencies, seeing how we could work together,” said Pranoto. “That really did sustain us throughout the pandemic. Not only did we purchase more food from the North Texas Food Bank, but we were also able to partner with other nonprofit agencies in the area and help each other. If we had excess food donations or if another retail partner had inventory to share, we did. We got to see how we could really collaborate with each other and utilize the opportunity that existed to grow a greater relationship.”
In addition, Mission Oak Cliff received a Ministries Council grant from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to help with their work serving satellite food pantries. They also received donations raised by local churches to help fund other needs.
As a result, they never shut down. They quadrupled the amount of time their clients could access the food pantry. They also quadrupled the amount of food on the shelves. They launched a virtual counseling program to help students and families suffering from the stress and anxiety of school and work during the pandemic, including launching a support group for parents of children struggling with the transition to new habits and routines. Partnerships with three local public schools increased to six, where they provided goods for those schools to operate their own food pantries on site. They started Food2Families, a referral program with local schools to get meals delivered to food-insecure families who were without transportation. They also received a grant to be able to donate new technology to families who couldn’t otherwise participate in virtual school, search for jobs, etc.
Things did look a little different. New safety procedures meant their in-house food distribution had to relocate to a line of clients outside. Clothing was still available, but no new donations could be accepted.
The English as a Second Language program—their largest adult education program—was put on hold. And, of course, plenty of masks, gloves and sanitizing solutions were used.
The exciting part, however, is that Mission Oak Cliff planned to slowly reopen their facilities in September, with the first phase allowing some people to come back into the building. Clothing donations are already being accepted again, and the ESL program will re-launch alongside in-person counseling sessions.
“We are super grateful for the way that the community has stepped up and offered help,” said Pranoto. “It was so incredible to see the collaboration with CBF and how they supported us through the Ministries Council grant, and with other CBF churches wanting to help us out. We couldn’t have accomplished what we did without the help we received.”
That included Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, which raised more than $17,000 that will go toward a refrigerated box truck Mission Oak Cliff uses to distribute food, and Cliff Temple Baptist Church members, who donated $16,000 for the new counseling center in 2021.
“Being able to rely on that network of people for encouragement and support was huge,” he said. “Coming out of the pandemic, I would hope that the collaboration and camaraderie among everyone—locally, nationally and globally—will continue, because we were able to get a lot of stuff done. All of the silos were broken. We realized how much we needed each other and how connected we are.”
Connections were key, as Mission Oak Cliff has a modest staff of five serving more than 16,000 individuals. That is more than 60 families a day, and more than 300 people a day. It also required an unexpected amount of physical labor as the team was responsible for hauling 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of food a week, or more.
“People were checking up on us all the time, and encouraging us to stay with it, because they knew we were working hard, and working overtime,” said Pranoto, adding that they never stopped getting calls from people wanting to volunteer. “I am most proud that we never had to turn anyone away. No one ever left empty-handed. We provided help for everyone who came to us seeking assistance.
“The thing we missed the most were the conversations we could have as we listened to people’s stories,” he added. “It’s been cool to see some of the clients who have transitioned out of homelessness, finding jobs and coming back to report that they’ve secured a house or an apartment. For them to actually check in is bittersweet, because we never got to celebrate with them; but we’re so excited for them anyway. It’s heartwarming that they would want to share with us, and we can’t wait to have those kinds of relationships again.”
He’s also hopeful that other organizations will be inspired by what they were able to accomplish on a very small budget, but with a vast sense of community.
“The culture that we’ve cultivated here with the staff is rooted in our compassion for people,” said Pranoto. “One thing that I have stressed since day one of working here is that we’re going to treat people with dignity and worth, and we are going to make mutually transformative relationships a core value. We are here to be transformed by them as much as they are transformed by us. We have as much to learn from them as they do from us. It’s not just a transaction, but an opportunity to build trust and community.”
As society’s new normal continues to evolve, Mission Oak Cliff braces for a continual increase in numbers. They’re still seeing new families coming through the doors, and know that the economic ramifications of the past year are going to last for awhile. It’s a future filled with unknowns, but Pranoto and his team know that they can face it.
“There’s some great synergy right now, especially in the City of Dallas,” he says. “I think it’s a really interesting God-thing, that God was able to hear my desires and fulfill them in this way. I love sharing that with people. We’re seeing a lot of faith-based groups stepping up and wanting to dream up solutions with us. People are concerned about the different social issues that are affecting people in poverty, and everybody is passionate about creating permanent solutions, not just putting a Band-Aid on a problem. I’m excited about what that means for the future.”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read online and subscribe at www.cbf.net/fellowship.