One can’t help but be inspired by Bill McLennan. As executive director of Paul’s Place, the former banker has been working since 2002 to build community, offer hope and restore dignity to broken lives in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Started as a soup kitchen in 1982 by two volunteers from St. John’s Church in Glyndon, Paul’s Place, the community center he runs in Pigtown, now offers programs, services and a community gathering place as it serves 8,000 local residents each year.
That’s no easy task. What started out as a modest helping hand serving lunch from St. Paul the Apostle Church on Washington Boulevard is now an 11,000 square foot building with 15 employees and 22 programs. The lunches are still served — 80,000 meals a year, to be precise — but added to the menu are an emergency food pantry, adult literacy programs, computer skills training, wellness classes, Narcotics Anonymous meetings and more, most of the new programs put in place under McLennan’s leadership. Pulling it all off means budgets must be met, staffs supervised, money raised and more. It takes a certain kind of personality — one that mixes a businessman’s attention to an income statement with the emotional generosity of a social worker — to head an operation as well-run as this one, all while keeping true to the difficult mission of changing lives.
Next Saturday, March 2, the center turns 30 and McLennan will be at The Hyatt Regency with a crowd of over five hundred to celebrate with typical fanfare: dinner, dancing, live and silent auctions. Galas like this one are common this time of year, but what’s rare is a single organization and its supporters working day after day to do the heavy lifting of turning a neighborhood around, small victory by small victory, affecting the lives of more than 200,000 people over 30 years. We can think of no better reason to celebrate.
We asked the beloved exec to share with us the secrets to his success and what it is that keeps him fighting the good fight, year after year.
Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.
Be the best of whatever you are.
When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?
College. For my personal goals…to follow a service leadership model in all of my business dealings and to lead a life that inspires others to achieve their potential and give back to their community. Through these two, any other of my goals will become achievable.
What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?
That we were born with two ears vs. one mouth for a reason: to listen.
What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?
1. That whenever you volunteer, you indeed receive back more than your share. It happens every time.
2. That grandchildren really are a gift from God and that they can be as much fun or more fun than your own children!
3. That for low-income people, budgeting is not the problem — it is a basic lack of resources. Most low-income households manage/stretch their finances better than I manage my own.
What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?
To become a business generalist — to learn all aspects of a non-profit, the direct service side, the business side and the fundraising side. Each aspect has its own skill set and once understood and when combined, it makes you a valuable member to any team.
What is the best moment of the day?
I have two! When I first arrive at Paul’s Place, I take my coffee and walk the building greeting staff and volunteers — the energy and passion is awesome. The second is the afternoon around 4pm when our after-school students are at Paul’s Place. Their energy and laughter is the perfect pick-me-up to end the day!
What is on your bedside table?
The latest issue of Collectible Automobile. My fantasy is to own a 1960’s collectible muscle car convertible.
What keeps you passionate about the work you do?
The positive change we are impacting person-by-person on a daily basis and the daily interaction I have with my dedicated staff and neighborhood and suburban volunteers. They are awesome.
What changes have you seen in the neighborhood since you started?
Our partnership with Habitat of the Chesapeake and Rebuilding Together – Baltimore has literally transformed the 1100 block of Ward Street and the adjacent blocks converting dilapidated buildings into safe, decent and affordable housing. The economy has not improved for our neighbors in terms of employment. The slowdown in 2008 only added insult to injury and the current economy improvement is a jobless recovery which makes it difficult for those at entry level job positions.
What is more important in the work you do: community development or direct assistance?
They both are equally important and are reflected in our two core competencies: 1) helping families respond to crisis and 2) helping strengthen families and youth to become self-sufficient.
What has been the greatest success of Paul’s Place?
Its ability to connect people from different backgrounds and channel that energy into improving Southwest Baltimore an area that has been struggling for 50 years. We focus on our mission and develop strong collaborative partnerships.
What can individuals do to help the residents you serve?
Become involved! Visit our website: www.paulsplaceoutreach.org and see the many ways you can volunteer and become involved as a donor for Paul’s Place helping to be our advocates. Once you come to Paul’s Place and see our Mission in action, you will become hooked!