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It seemed like an unusual combination: two churches of different faiths, community economic development and business.
But it was that combination that helped create ASSETS Toledo, which has become a household name in helping low and moderate-income people gain skills to start their own businesses.
The nonprofit celebrates its fifth anniversary with numbers that support that it's reaching out and leading new people into the business world.
ASSETS Toledo has graduated 240 students since its inception in 1999. From that, students have started 77 businesses that remain in operation today.
Fifty-four students already were business owners when they came to the program, and since attending ASSETS classes, they have hired 77 new part-time and full-time employees.
If the statistics are not evidence enough of its success, organizers point to a waiting list that can fill up several classes for its 13-week course. Richard Anderson, chairman of The Andersons Inc., has talked at one of the ASSETS Toledo graduations and at a recent fund-raiser.
His son, Dan, who runs The Andersons retail store division, is a regular instructor for the nonprofit.
"I think it's a very efficient and well-run operation there," Richard Anderson said. "I think the concept has a lot going for it. My son is an instructor there and really enjoys it.
"There is a level of enthusiasm among the students that's really uncommon. They appreciate the information they are given," Mr. Anderson said. "I think it comes from that Mennonite philosophy of hard work, honesty, and all that good stuff. You really get a sense of that there."
The nonprofit, established in 1999, assists people who were shut out of traditional banks and agencies designed to help small businesses, Phil Ebersole, the former executive director, said.
He said the Toledo Mennonite Church, where he once served as pastor, approached Friendship Baptist Church, one of the largest African-American churches in the city, with the idea of starting such a non-profit organization.
Olivia Holden, a member of Friendship Baptist who worked as director of minority business services for the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce, heard the call. She now is the executive director of ASSETS Toledo.
"I can see the fruits of my labor," said Mrs. Holden, who also is president of the Lagrange Development Corp. board. "Students come here because they have a dream.
"A lot of them don't know how to reach that dream or start a business, but they have a dream and are willing to work for it. Some had been downsized from their job and are looking to use their skills in a different way," Mr. Holden said.
One of the students, Inger Murdock, said she didn't just improve her business skills, but made lasting friendships during the course.
Mrs. Murdock, who operates Odella's Wash Land at 539 Dorr St. with her husband Ron, said since attending ASSETS Toledo, she has increased her business, tightened her financial skills, hired workers, and worked with other ASSETS Toledo clients.
"I believe I'm more focused and have more tailored, long-range goals," said Mrs. Murdock, "I have hired and done business with ASSETS graduates. They have become my customers and my friends."
There are nine other similar programs around the country like ASSETS Toledo that originated with the Mennonite church.
The idea for ASSETS Toledo is not a new one, but one that some may find unusual. The Mennonite faith has reached out into low-income communities with such programs for over 50 years with the Mennonite Economic Development Association, said Mr. Ebersole.
Mr. Ebersole, who left Toledo in 2002 to become pastor of the Peace Mennonite Community Church in the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colo., said the church was looking for a way to become more involved with the poor as part of its faith's teachings.
"What I liked best about [ASSETS Toledo] was the spiritual connection," Mrs. Murdock said. "It was good to be around like-minded people. You can say, 'Thank you, Lord,' and not have to worry about offending anyone."
Mr. Ebersole said ASSETS Toledo is not designed to evangelize, promote the Mennonite faith or any religion, but let people feel open enough to express their faith in business if that's their choosing.
Wendy Gramza, executive vice president of the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce, said she doesn't know of any ASSETS Toledo businesses that have joined the chamber. Ms. Gramza said the chamber has a similar program for those who have already made the commitment to start a business.
She said that the more information people have about starting a business, the better off they will be and believes ASSETS Toledo gives people a chance to determine if being a business owner is right for them.
Mrs. Holden said students have walked away understanding that owning a business is more of a lifestyle than opening and closing a building on a daily basis.
She said they also walk away with something they didn't have before, which is confidence that they can do it.
"When they hear someone like [Richard Anderson] tell them about his business and encourage them, they believe it," Mrs. Holden said. "A lot of people enter our classes not thinking they can do this. Some will leave deciding business is not for them, but for others, it will give them the confidence to believe they can do anything."
Contact Clyde Hughes at: email@example.com or 419-724-6095.