Foundation News

Mill Village Ministries Receives the 2021 Community Spirit Award

The Community Spirit Award is given to an outstanding nonprofit organization that serves the community through its vital programs and through its exceptional efforts to communicate and partner with other nonprofits.

Faith goes into planting a garden: you bury a seed, water, and wait.

Planting teaches what it means to live life on this Earth, how tending and listening, learning and connection are not just Good Things, but vital. After a missional gap year in the Lowcountry, Dan Weidenbenner set down roots in Greenville’s Greater Sullivan neighborhood, joined Long Branch Baptist Church, and began listening, learning, and connecting with his neighbors and church family. What grew from those choices now flourishes as Mill Village Ministries, a burgeoning microcosm of farming, cycling, entrepreneurship, and faith.

Weidenbenner’s year after graduating from Furman University was a fruitful one. “As Christians, we’re called to one another, to break down walls of race and poverty,” lessons he learned during his experience living and working in Allendale, South Carolina, through a program with Grace Church. “I knew there was a need for this [in Greenville], that I had more to learn and also skills to offer.”

No doubt you’ve heard of Mill Village Farms. Maybe you’ve passed a plot of land in the Pendleton, White Horse Road, or Sullivan communities. Perhaps you’ve stopped by the Village Wrench in West Greenville to get your bike repaired or donate your old one. Possibly you’ve stumbled upon the Third Thursday Market in Poe West, chatted, and shopped the stalls offering wares from the entrepreneurs with Village Launch. But if this is all new to you, let it be known: Mill Village Ministries is a model of what can be when people of faith link arms, look outside of themselves and see how they can help a fellow neighbor.

Long Branch Baptist Pastor Sean Dogan (Mill Village Ministries board chair) saw the sincerity in what Weidenbenner was doing. Greater Sullivan, as with the majority of Greenville’s mill villages, is in what is considered a food desert, a place where fresh produce and/or groceries cannot be found within walking or biking distance. Most families resort to convenience stores to supply food for their tables. Dogan and Weidenbenner connected an empty plot of land with church members’ knowledge of gardening and found a simple solution: teach local kids how to grow and harvest nutritious food. That first summer, Mill Village Farms hired four teenagers, and now employs quadruple that number.

The idea took root and held. Once the farm teens were earning a paycheck, it became evident they lacked financial literacy, so classes on banking, saving, and taxes began. At Mill Village Farmer’s markets, customers arrived on broken and faulty bicycles, so a few supporters set up free repair stations, the beginning of Village Wrench. Like a flourishing garden, the programs grew with the needs.

COVID-19 changed things. Boxes from Mill Villages’ FoodShare program (including farm produce) ballooned from 200 boxes per week to a thousand. Village Wrench repaired over 1,000 bicycles as public transportation grew more limited. Unemployment meant that for many a side hustle became a main source of income, meaning Village Launch has more interest than ever, educating new entrepreneurs while keeping money in the community. Village Engage, under the umbrella of Village Community, continued its work of justice and compassion, memorializing victims of racial terror in the midst of 2020’s racial reckoning.

Tabita Romera, a former Mill Village student, finds visible satisfaction in her work. “I really like how everything connects. [As a student], I liked how my work was being shown in the community. I knew that the produce we were harvesting, it was going to help the community.” Now a freshman at North Greenville University, Romera is majoring in education, a track that she sees as divinely ordained. “God put me here, and building relationships with Mill Village students helps me be confident to build connections with my future classroom.”

From a fresh-out-of-college idea to the present, Mill Village Ministries continues the Good Work, strengthening and connecting Greenville’s communities, starting at the root.

“We know what works now,” says Weidenbenner. “We all have a giftedness to share, to give to others. We will continue to build more partnerships and grow and deepen our current relationships.”

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