JOPLIN, Mo. – Watered Gardens is a non-profit striving to help homeless and impoverished individuals earn the basic necessities for life, focusing on rewarding work ethic rather than giving handouts.
James Whitford founded Watered Gardens with his wife in 2000 after their compassion was ignited during previous mission trips throughout the United States. With the realization that their own community needed help as well, Whitford quit his job as a physical therapist and started the non-profit.
The organization has multiple programs operating across four campuses in Joplin. Their 24,000 square foot Outreach Center is in Downtown Joplin and includes separate shelters for men, women and a recovery unit for individuals coming out of the hospital with nowhere else to go.
The Outreach Center also has a ‘Mission Market’ where individuals at the shelter are able to earn vouchers to go grocery shopping. They earn their vouchers by working at Watered Garden’s “Worthshop” located near the Outreach Center.
According to Whitford, most individuals earn their vouchers at the Worthshop by helping recycle the organization’s trash or stock shelves and prepare items to be sold at the market. One meal voucher is awarded for every 30 minutes of work.
The organization’s motto is “Work awakens worth,” and they strongly believe that if individuals realize their ability to earn their own basic necessities, they will feel a greater self-worth in the process.
“Rather than people becoming dependent on us in an unhealthy way, we’re helping folks realize that they have the ability to earn what they need,” Whitford said.
Watered Gardens has also had tremendous success with helping individuals earn employment after going through the organization’s different programs. According to Whitford, roughly half of those who visit the shelter actually leave with a job locked down.
“So we’re helping people get employed but we believe a lot of that has to do with how we perceive them as they come through our doors,” he said. “Do you perceive them as recipients of charity or do you perceive them as people who have capacity and potential? So that’s something we have really trained hard for our team to do.”
Along with the Outreach Center, Watered Gardens operates a shelter for mothers and children, a ‘Neighbor Connect’ program and a long-term residential program for men. The long-term residential program is a 15-month commitment that focuses on work readiness and character development, offering classes on physical wellness and work training programs. Then, the hope is they leave the program and are matched with one of Watered Gardens’ partner employers and receive a job to start a new chapter of life.
Neighbor Connect is a program that “connects one neighbor’s needs with another neighbor’s skill.” If an individual needs their lawn mowed or a new roof on their home but are financially or physically incapable of doing it themselves, they can contact Watered Gardens and the organization will pair them up with a volunteer that is skilled in that area. Whitford also said that they are in the process of developing an app to make the program more available to users.
All of Watered Gardens’ community work falls under the True Charity Initiative, which is a national movement of voluntary, effective charity at the local level, according to its website. Whitford defined True Charity’s pillars as privately funded, outcome driven and work-oriented approaches to homelessness and poverty. Along with that approach, Whitford has a specific quote that he believes to shed light on the “dependency crisis” America is facing.
“Dependency is merely slavery with a smiling mask,” he quoted. “We really believe that. We want people to flourish and independence and self reliance is a big part of that.”
Whitford also believes dependency is a national crisis and that it’s partly due to elected officials passing legislation that offers more handouts without any work incentives.
“Dependency is a national epidemic right now and if we’re going to beat it, we’re going to have to transform the way charity is being delivered,” he said “We’re also going to need to stop electing these leaders who just promise more handouts because it only makes things worse.”
After 21 years of operation, Watered Gardens has grown exponentially with 30 full time employees and several hundred volunteers. They are also now part of a network of 50 organizations across 15 states that operate work-incentivized charities. In the last two decades, Whitford estimates the non-profit has helped an astounding 50,000 people in need.
“I always want to be in the will of God. I don’t want to chase my own dreams. I’d rather do what he wants me to do, which is this.”
Those interested in volunteering for Watered Gardens or are in need of help can visit their website for more information.