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Charity fights for kids' survival -- and its own

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-18 09:34:07-05

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Urban Promise, a nonprofit that seeks to uplift and empower people to break the cycle of poverty, violence and drug addiction, found itself fighting the same forces recently in its own battle to survive.

Here is the back story:

In 2007, pastor Abraham Brandyberry and his wife, Joni, created CUP at the Cincinnati Covenant Church of Nazarene, because they wanted to create a safe haven for Cincinnati families.

“CUP was about developing communities and people in order to show them their God-given purpose. We wanted to be a good neighbor for those in our community, no matter where they were in life currently,” said Brandyberry, 34, who has been a pastor for 15 years.

He began CUP with mentoring, tutoring and summer enrichment classes for teens with Joni, 32, but then they expanded to helping adults, with resources and referrals for employment, food, housing and drug-abuse issues.

Brandyberry runs the program along with his church duties and his daytime job as a manager at Koch’s Foods in Fairfield.

On paper, Joni’s title is volunteer coordinator, but she really does everything. She functions as the co-founder and co-director, and she focuses on the students in the program and trains and mentors the interns.

“Basically, our philosophy is to come alongside of families living in generational poverty and walk with them into a better future by empowering them to build skills and connect with resources,” Brandyberry said.

Pastor Abraham Brandyberry takes some kids on a field trip.

The program -- which focused on encouraging teens to finish high school and consider career options, and on educating adults in how to get jobs and keep them -- began to grow.

It eventually included eight board members, and word of its success spread. Volunteers came, mentors offered their services, and donations poured in. Their annual operating budget last year was $85,000, with donations taking the total up to $125,000.

There wasn’t enough space for their free food pantry or to fit in all of the 47 kids. Then, suddenly, a nursing home moving to a new location donated its old building on Harrison Avenue to CUP.

Things were definitely on the upswing — when disaster struck.

The empty building was robbed and vandalized. Pipes were ripped out, copper was stolen and windows were broken. And the damages added up.

After a nursing home donated its building to Cincinnati Urban Promise, criminals robbed and vandalized the building, ripping out pipes, stealing copper and breaking windows.

Police began investigating, security cameras were set up, and one day, a man was arrested. At the trial, it came out that he was a heroin addict, and had been stealing to feed his habit. He was given a year’s probation and was ordered to spend time in rehab and do community service.

Similar incidents continue, though they have slowed down. But the irony that CUP is battling the very forces of crime, drugs and poverty it is trying to defeat is not lost on Brandyberry.

He adds, though, that he and Joni are determined to make CUP a success. They are fixing the building, and they hope to open in March. At that time, Brandyberry plans to resign from his corporate job to be hands-on full time at CUP.

“We live in Cincinnati, we love Cincinnati and we care about Cincinnati. It’s challenging, but we are going to keep working at it,” Brandyberry said.

“We will never turn our backs on it.”

At least one CUP staff member is counting on it.

Sybil Kelley will never forget the day her husband and her son were killed in a random shooting on the streets of Cincinnati.

Six years ago, Kelley, 38, buried her husband James, 42, and Ja-reth, 14, with her younger son Dennis, 3, silently watching the proceedings.

“I could not understand why the tragedy had happened. I started going back to church to get answers,” said Kelley, whose voice still cracks when she remembers that dark period in her life.

Then she met the Brandyberrys.

“I had shut down. I couldn’t talk to anyone or trust anyone, but they helped me a lot,” Kelley said.

“I believe in this program because it’s helpful, informative and gets the kids off the streets and out of trouble. It shows them they have options and teaches them life skills,” said Kelley, who, as custodian, cooks, cleans and makes breakfast for the participants of the program. She is happy her son is in a place where he is “learning and making friends.”

“To help the Kelleys, whose family was ripped apart by violence and who were gripped by grief, was our privilege,” Joni said. “Over the years, Dennis has grown, come out of his shell and is doing well in school and with his peers. He is healing. Sybil’s mother, who recently died, her sister and her nephews are all in the program.”

“We have a real opportunity here to make a difference," said Daniel Rajaiah, a member of CUP’s board. "The community our team is serving is still slowly recovering from a national recession. Our board saw this as a huge opportunity to put our faith into action and show some of our city’s ‘least’ that we care, we love them and we want to help them.”

The Brandyberrys say they are invested in the local community. They live in the city's Spring Grove Village neighborhood with their three boys, Zek, 6, Toby, 3, and 6-month-old Noah.

Brandyberry was born in Mansfield, Ohio. His grandfather and namesake Abraham was a pastor, but his parents, Dan, 58, and Beth, 57, who still live in the state, were not practicing Christians.

In high school, Brandyberry began to be drawn to Christ and realized his calling, he said. He graduated from Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio and began to work as a pastor at his current job.

Pastor Abraham Brandyberry stands in the repaired and refurbished former nursing home building in Westwood that is now the new home of Cincinnati Urban Promise.

CUP is looking to welcome new volunteers and donors to help them move into their new location in Westwood. For information, go to http://www.cincyurbanpromise.org.