Local Hero Ron Copeland and a Brief History of Our Community Place
This year’s adult summer reading program theme is Escape the Ordinary. Massanutten Regional Library will host one extraordinary local resident on Monday, June 8 at 1:00 p.m. at the Main library in downtown Harrisonburg.
The early days
Ron Copeland bought The Little Grill in 1992 at the age of 24. As the story goes, he underestimated the appetites of the JMU homecoming weekend crowd, and with nothing to cook on Monday, he stayed closed. It was so nice, he stopped opening Mondays. A few weeks later, when a man turned up at the locked door looking for food, Ron let him in. The Grill’s weekly Soup Kitchen was born. "It bothered me to live in a poor neighborhood, where there was a certain segment of the population that couldn't eat in my restaurant," Copeland said. But "a soup kitchen can only do so much. ... The loneliness [among the poor] is incredible."
Recognizing the need for building community as well as filling stomachs, grassroots organization Our Community Place (OCP) was formed by Soup Kitchen volunteers in 1999. As early as April 2000, the Daily News-Record was reporting on OCP’s plan to purchase a city building to create a community center, which would expand upon the civic-minded mission of the Soup Kitchen. In addition to the weekly meal, they planned for free classes, study groups, 12-step programs, a community garden, and more. "I want to become reliant on the people in my geographic community for my happiness and well-being," Copeland said. "I want to be involved in the lives of my neighbors no matter who they are." The group hoped to break down social barriers through cooperative community meals, shared activities, and work.
OCP bought the former Salvation Army chapel on the corner of Johnson and Main in January 2001. Though they had considered purchasing the building for several years, they were spurred into action when the City announced plans to turn the adjacent stretch of Blacks Run into a concrete culvert. Since then, taking care of the creek has become just another facet of OCP’s neighborly work. Throughout 2001, the group raised money through “monthly dinner shows, yard sales, a spring festival and the oft reliable jug-on-the-counter at the Little Grill.” To make up the rest of the funds, OCP solicited small loans from many local residents, rather than one large bank loan. On January 2, 2002, they were able to cut a check for the full amount of the mortgage and start renovations with zero debt.
From building purchase to grand opening
|The old Salvation Army chapel.|
When The Little Grill became a cooperative in 2003, Copeland was able to focus more on OCP. Around the same time, he felt a calling to attend seminary, and OCP took a back burner in his life. However, after graduating from Eastern Mennonite University in 2006, the community center became his first priority again.
It took time to get the building ready for its purpose. Because of the flood plain, they were unable to build on the property; they had to renovate. In the early days, they fixed what they could as funds allowed, starting with priority tasks like asbestos removal. Part of the building required rewiring. New water and sewer lines, painting, constructing an office and bathrooms, installing a new furnace, and putting in new windows were some of the many projects required.
On Monday, August 18, 2008, OCP received its occupancy permit and hosted its first Soup Kitchen at the new location. A group of 75 ate sloppy joes, corn on the cob, stewed tomatoes, onion rings, squash casserole, and garlic bread. They celebrated the official grand opening on Saturday, May 2, 2009.
From the beginning, OCP has supported and been supported by the local community.
|Working in the community garden.|
JMU Habitat for Humanity painted the building in 2001. In 2005, 10 students of the Shenandoah Valley Migrant Education Program painted a mural there. Bridgewater College students raised $2000 and spent two years building seven outdoor exercise stations--pull-up bars, parallel bars, a sit-up bench, a balance beam, and signage for a walking trail and other exercises—outside the building. Watt Bradshaw, president of Blue Ridge Energy Co., donated three solar panels for heating water at the building, which served the dual purpose of saving the organization money and educating community members about alternative energy and sustainable living.
OCP might be best known for feeding the community. In addition to their regular meals, OCP also serves on Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, they do many other things to provide support and activities to people who are homeless or struggling with poverty, addiction, illness, or other difficult circumstances. The building serves as a meeting place for community groups, church congregations, and organizations like Narcotics Anonymous. Skills clubs have taught canning, knitting, car maintenance, and more. Skyline Literacy Coalition, which pairs tutors with people learning to read, used the facilities for tutoring, while the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services at JMU used it as a test site for their “suitcase clinic,” providing mobile medical services for the homeless. Nor is it unusual to find community members celebrating weddings, birthdays, and holidays at OCP. "I won't really be happy with it until it's a vibrant place with a lot going on every day,” Copeland has said.
|An April 2015 pottery class.|
The organization has had a lot going on both inside and outside its walls. Their community garden has served the dual purpose of contributing to the soup kitchen and building sense of community through working together. In other agricultural pursuits, they ran Our Community Farm, a live-in recovery center for men battling substance abuse, from 2010 to 2014. The men worked the farm and participated in a 12-step program. As one former resident put it, "As we're getting the weeds out of the soil, we're also weeding our souls.” (Despite the program’s success, funding deficits led to the sale of Our Community Farm after four years.) Another program of OCP is Our Community Works, which since 2009 has matched people who need work done with people who need work to do, particularly the homeless or addicted who have job retention problems. The crew builds small sheds, paints, does minor repairs, installs drywall and flooring, cleans everything from apartments to cars, blow insulation, weatherizes, landscapes, and gardens. However, it’s not all work and no play at OCP. In January 2013, the troupe Our Community Plays! performed their first play. Written by JMU alum John S. Wells and directed by retired JMU theater professor Tom Arthur, Invisible Man was about a mute homeless man interacting with others on a subway platform. The play raised funds for OCP and provided a creative outlet for community members. “In a sense, Our Community Place defies definition, but at its core, it's a community center in the most literal sense of the term,” as these examples suggest.
|Copeland supervises in the kitchen.|
After Philip Fisher Rhodes served as executive director from 2011 to 2014, Copeland returned to the position in December 2014. Copeland “has a gift to minister to the most needy and broken, especially to befriend them,” according to former OCP board member Brian Farrell. “Institutions can get food and shelter for them…but what most of these people really don’t have is friendship.” Copeland has been a friend to the Harrisonburg community for over 20 years, and while both he and OCP have changed and grown over time, the goals have remained the same. "That's what I want [Our Community Place] to be - joy and life and hope," he said. "It's about loving people, and it's never going to be more than that."
by Kristin Noell
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