Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Cabbage Patch Dad

The Rev. J. Tracy Holladay has led his organization, the Cabbage Patch Settlement House in the Old Louisville neighborhood, for 30 years. But its history goes back to a time long before his arrival, and the place promises to live on long after he leaves it. Its core mission – providing opportunities for at-risk children to succeed – is stronger and more necessary than any one person. Even a popular toy can’t get in the way of what they’re doing down there on 6th Street.

The first thing the normal Jane or John on that street needs to know is that, no, there is no connection between the Cabbage Patch Settlement House – a nonprofit instilling values, education and creativity in over one thousand children annually – and the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. “We think the Cabbage Patch Kids are cute, but we share no connection,” they clarify on their website’s FAQ page.

The Cabbage Patch Settlement House was founded in 1910 by Louise Marshall, who stayed until she was in her early 90s, 70 years after creating it. The name came from the neighborhood, as many residents had cabbages in their gardens, and a book, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch by Alice Hegan Rice, that was set there. It’s known as a settlement house from the 19th Century term used to indicate a place where new settlers to a community, especially an inner-city area, could find resources they needed.

Rev. Holladay took over shortly thereafter, having taken a circuitous route to get there from his native Florida. Born in 1951, the son of a military man, he says his childhood, spent mostly in Gainesville, wasn’t quite like “The Andy Griffith Show,” but allows that it was pretty close. It was “a very churched family, Baptist by tradition.” Church activities kept him busy throughout his childhood. In high school, he got involved with an organization called Young Life, an outreach ministry for students that Holladay says aims to make religion more fun for them. He later served as a director for the Louisville chapter during his time in the seminary, and a member of both boards suggested Holladay apply for the newly available executive director job.

Holladay decided to join the Naval Reserve during the Vietnam War. He took time getting through college (“I sometimes say ‘I squeezed those four years into 10’”), also working jobs throughout those years: a hospital corpsman in the Navy, the manager of a rental car agency (an outgrowth of teenage gas station work), selling real estate, selling advertising…

Between the many jobs and the religious training, Holladay was prepared to take the lead at the Cabbage Patch by his early 30s. “I’m still selling. I’m just selling at-risk kids these days!” he laughs.

“I didn’t come to seminary necessarily thinking I was going to do regular church stuff,” he continues. “I had been involved with some social ministry stuff through the church I grew up in, and had – as you can tell from those jobs – a business orientation. I was always pretty good with numbers.”

That skill comes in extra handy at the private Cabbage Patch, which prides itself on surviving without government funding. “Even when we were an even smaller entity – and this goes back to Ms. Marshall’s words – I think we were gutsy,” says Holladay. “And a little different. She decided, early on, to stay out of the traditional funding streams that most organizations like this (utilize).” In 1910, such funds, and places like the United Way, had yet to assert themselves as agents of such funds. As they did, the Cabbage Patch continued raising money without their assistance. “So I believe that meant she had to be fairly creative in fundraising. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she came from a well-to-do, prominent family and knew a lot of well-to-do people!”

Shortly after Holladay took over, a board member offered the idea of an amateur basketball event. Their “Street Ball Showdown” went on to raise a lot of money over almost two decades, helping to provide educational and recreational programs for their kids. Even during the recent recession, the organization’s financial savvy kept the lights on.

Rev. Holladay doesn’t get to spend much time working with the kids, but the organization includes perhaps one thousand volunteers, as well, who do everything from coaching to tutoring on a regular basis, or helping families during the holidays. But the mission has always come first for him. About the kids, he says, “I want them to believe that they can do more and accomplish more than perhaps they think they can. I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in … probably every person, but certainly children are this little gold mine of untapped potential.”

He says “it’s almost deprogramming” to take disadvantaged children and show them other ways of seeing the world. “Certainly, not every kid we serve is coming out of that environment, but there is something that’s different between – it’s clearly impactful, whether a kid feels loved or appreciated or has someone believe in them.”

They boast alumni including “an NFL Super Bowl Coach, a former city alderman, community leaders, teachers, coaches, firefighters, police officers, Cabbage Patch Program Directors, and leading executives.” A few current employees began going there as children.

“I think you have to let them try a lot of different things,” says Holladay. “The kid that comes and just hangs out in the gym all the time thinks he’s going to be the next Michael Jordan or whatever – we’ll be suggesting, ‘Hey, we’ve got this class on art. And we’ve got this leadership program. We’ve got camping. We’re taking a big bike trip somewhere.’ All kinds of stuff they might not have the chance to be exposed to otherwise.”

“And guess what? That might be the next great teacher, or performer, as opposed to the next great athlete. Ultimately, we want them to be successful, productive, well-adjusted adults that are contributing to the society as a whole. And have moral-slash-spiritual values, as well.”

c. 2014 Kentucky Monthly

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