Bethel New Life celebrates 30 years on the West Side

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James Riddle spent 19 years and nine months in the Illinois Department of Corrections. When he got out of prison, he knew nothing about Bethel New Life.

But the 42-year-old man soon learned about the West Side social agency’s job readiness and training program, where he learned how to write a resume, properly fill out a job application and conduct himself professionally during an interview.

“I had never done clerical work before, and I guess the employment coordinator saw something in me and gave me an opportunity to work as a clerk for Bethel,” said Riddle, who was hired as a paid staff member in September after serving an internship with the Welcome Home program.

“Bethel gives people with criminal history a second opportunity and helps them to learn skills that are valuable to their job search,” he said.

“What I found is the people throughout the Bethel organization generally care about helping others. It’s one thing to be in the environment, but it’s another thing to actually care and help others.”

Riddle is just one of tens of thousands who’ve been helped over the last three decades since Bethel New Life opened its doors at 4950 W. Thomas. The $15.5 million non-profit, which employs 271 and counts 400 volunteers, offers a variety of programs, including financial literacy, job training, prisoner re-entry help and housing support.

Next week, the latest participants in Bethel’s Smart Savers program, which was featured last month on AustinTalks, will graduate. The public is invited to attend at 6 p.m. June 10, 1140 N. Lamon Ave. City Treasurer Stephanie Neely will be the keynote speaker.

The faith-based agency, started by Bethel Lutheran Church in the wake of the riots and flight of homeowners, banks and other businesses from the West Side, has become an integral part of the West Garfield Park and Austin communities.

“The vision was to create an affordable, livable, just community . . . we started to make some affordable housing happen back in 1965, then when got into economic development after figuring out that people don’t have jobs to afford the housing. It evolved into a comprehensive approach,” said Mary Nelson, founding president of Bethel New Life.

“The most exciting thing is the impact on people’s lives, especially the young people who’ve went through some difficulties and started out at Bethel,” said Nelson, who led Bethel for a quarter century before retiring five years ago.

In April, Bethel celebrated its 30th anniversary by holding a gala attended by sponsors, community leaders, supporters, friends and staff.

“We’ve been able to survive because we ensure the work we’re doing meets our expectations as well as the community’s expectations and by making sure we’re financially viable and serving the community to the best of our abilities,” said Steve McCullough, CEO and president at Bethel New Life.

“We’ve really had to downsize the organization by cutting over 100 staff, worked with funders whether it’s government or others who support us,” he said.

As quality evaluation director at Bethel New Life, Dan Cooper’s main role is to help the programs keep track of their goals and make sure the work Bethel does makes a a difference in people’s lives.

“I was drawn to Bethel because of their reputation at doing really cutting-edge work, not only to provide services and empower residents to get involved with the community,” he said.

West Siders like Riddle said he’s been touched by the way people at Bethel have gone out of their way to help him and countless others.

“I’ve been well embraced. The Bethel organization has given me an opportunity and helped me obtain skills.”

Now living in Maywood, Riddle hopes in five years to own his own bus company and work with Bethel as an employment coordinator or community organizer.

Bethel’s leader is equally hopeful about what’s next.

“I think the future looks really good for Bethel because we’re looking to explore some additional opportunities for our programs and strengthen leadership in the community,” said McCullough.

Click here to view Bethel’s 30th Anniversary Report and to see pictures from the gala.

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