Galilee Ministries: Fostering Community During COVID-19 on the East Side
Leslie Blaser
Galilee Ministries

​There are not many places where a new refugee can go to an English or citizenship class, drop their child off at a daycare, and shop at a food pantry in one space. In Charlotte, they can go to Galilee Ministries, a community center that served more than 700 people each week prior to the pandemic.

Galilee Ministries is an old church building off Central Avenue that has turned into a community center to serve residents in East Charlotte, including many refugees. It hosts several nonprofits on site, including Loaves and Fishes, Central Piedmont Community College, Catholic Charities, and Refugee Support Services. These groups provide a variety of services to the community, including English classes, citizenship classes, life skills classes, after-school programs, a food pantry, cross-cultural counseling services, and mentoring for new food-based businesses.

Outside, the center hosts 39 garden plots where many refugees and immigrants can grow produce not easily found in grocery stores. Several Eagle Scouts have conducted projects around the site, and they had a “butterfly highway” garden installed as part of an effort to include more native plants. They’ve also partnered with Trees Charlotte on an edible landscape, where community members could come and pick figs and other fruit from trees.

Toni Hagerman, the executive director of Galilee Ministries, knew they could take more of their community work outside and wanted to do more. COVID-19 accelerated that process since many inside services came to a halt. With grants from the City of Charlotte, Galilee Ministries has big plans to turn the outside space into a true gathering place, bringing that strong sense of community found inside its walls outdoors.

Galilee Ministries received a beautification grant from Keep Charlotte Beautiful, a program within the City’s Housing & Neighborhood Services Department. The grant provided a secure, chain-link fence to protect the garden plots, as well as a new picnic table and trash and recycling cans for where people eat together.

The organization also received a placemaking grant from the Planning, Design, and Development Department to help transform the outdoor space with additional benches, picnic tables, enhanced landscaping and a natural playscape.

“I think community building sounds like a soft idea…but there are so many things that happen when people are in community, so many good connections that are made. We say this all the time at Galilee, one need meets another,” Hagerman said.

Hagerman worked with the director at St. Andrew’s Homes, which primarily serves the elderly and disabled, as well as community leaders from the Merry Oaks and Commonwealth Morningside neighborhoods, to figure out how the center’s front yard could better serve its neighbors.

“I think that sense of belonging is underestimated in its power to make a stronger east side, especially when you think about the diversity [here] and the people who’ve come from far, far away or the people who’ve lived [here] their entire lives, and the whole neighborhood changes on them,” she continued.

When the building was open, Hagerman said they heard many stories about how residents learned how to open up and connect with people who are different than them. “We had people who would come to us in tears saying how they had not trusted these people, they thought these people dressed funny and they resented them coming to the neighborhood. But then they realized they’re just like them, they have arthritis, too. There are these commonalities that they have found. It’s a privilege to witness those kinds of light bulbs go off in people.”

One of the most popular events prior to the pandemic at the Center was a weekly meal where people from all walks of life, regardless of background, could come together for a meal. “Who knows how the stages of reopening are going to be with COVID-19…I would imagine that front yard will be our space…I would imagine that we will move that [meal] to the front yard,” Hagerman said. “We might end up being a spectacle, as people drive up and down Central Avenue, to see what’s going on in our front yard.”

In the coming months, the Center will have the new fence, benches, picnic tables, and a natural playscape. They also have built a labyrinth out front, and Duke Energy is installing better lighting. They are also considering installing a grill to invite those looking on to come and eat together.

Hagerman said the City has helped the Galilee Ministries take many of the ideas they had for the outdoors, refine them and turn them into a reality for the Center. “We had not imagined ourselves partnering with municipalities [before],” she said. “The success we’ve had in working with the City has opened us up and make us think ‘Maybe there are other partners out there.’ That’s where Trees Charlotte, NC Extension Services [came in]…we got more confidence to work with others.”

Whether inside or outdoors, Galilee Ministries continues to build community during COVID-19.

Housing & Neighborhood Services has provided more than $166,000 in grants to help organizations like Galilee Ministries continue to support their neighbors and build community during COVID-19.

Learn more about these community grants and Planning, Design & Developments’ placemaking efforts to see how the city can help you make an impact in your neighborhood.