Shortly after founding Valley Dream Center two years ago to help alleviate poverty, Rene Charest went in search of a headquarters for the Fresno nonprofit’s “ground zero.”
The executive pastor at Valley Christian Center knew the needs of those living in poverty in Fresno were far greater than his church could handle alone. So he created a nonprofit, Valley Dream Center, and assembled a team of allies – a number of partner organizations, churches and businesses – to tackle the problem together.
For the first two years, they operated out of Valley Christian Center. That changes Feb. 1, when the nonproft moves into a home of its own in east-central Fresno. Charest describes the discovery of their new location, the former California Christian College campus, as a “God thing.”
The campus came into their view in 2014, during a tour with Fresno police officer David Standley. Charest had asked Standley, founder of Gangland Redemption Ministries and a partner of Valley Dream Center, to take him to a neighborhood with some of the city’s highest rates of crime, poverty and unemployment.
Walking through a neighborhood around University and Winery avenues, Standley picked up a handful of spent .40-caliber shells on the street and turned to Charest: “We start here.”
In that moment, Charest saw a cluster of buildings across the street.
“What is that?”
“That’s a college.”
“A college!? I didn’t know there was a college here! I’ve been here since I was 16!”
Walking onto the campus of California Christian College – nine buildings on 4 acres at 4881 E. University Ave. – they learned the facility went on the market an hour prior.
Developers were interested in demolishing the buildings and putting up apartments. Charest had another idea.
“I want to buy this campus,” he told the college president. “I don’t know how, but I believe God wants us to have this campus.”
I think it’s a God thing. I think God just opened the doors for us and blessed us with this whole thing.
Next month, it turns into their new home. (California Christian College is now located at Harmony Free Will Baptist Church.)
Valley Dream Center’s new campus includes an 18-dorm transitional living facility for women and children, a gymnasium, classrooms, large kitchen, two chapels, administrative building, and plots for small gardens – all with the focus on helping those within a 1-mile radius. Valley Dream Center also host farmers markets and offers after-school tutoring, cooking classes, marriage counseling and courses on anger management and overcoming addiction.
When you are restoring people, you find poverty is not just financial. People sometimes have emotional poverty. They have never learned healthy ways of relating to people, so they can’t keep a job, their families are broken. Poverty comes in many forms.
Last year, Valley Dream Center served more than 30,000. The group hopes to help 50,000 in 2016.
“Seventy percent of all the adults do not have a GED in this neighborhood,” Charest says. “One-hundred percent of all the families at the elementary schools here are on some kind of government assistance, and so you have an almost 70 percent unemployment rate because of that.”
The nonprofit has more than 20 partners that work on one part of a three-tiered mission: “Rescue, restore and release.” At least seven groups will have offices on the Valley Dream Center campus to help with this work. One of the groups, Growing Our Athletic Leaders (GOAL) – recently founded by Anthony McCoy of the Seattle Seahawks and retired San Francisco 49er Tim Collier – will help provide sporting equipment for children living in poverty.
Charest got the idea for Valley Dream Center after retiring from a 30-year career as a commercial builder and becoming an executive pastor at Valley Christian Center, where he continues to serve. All his work with Valley Dream Center is done on a volunteer basis.
“I noticed that there are all of these wonderful churches in areas that are just falling apart,” he says. “And I began to think, ‘These are great churches, great people, why is our neighborhood crumbling?’ … There’s tens of thousands of nonprofits in the community. In the state of California alone, there are billions of dollars spent to eradicate poverty, with no change. So we’ve got people that are great people, that are volunteers. You’ve got a great need, you’ve got great nonprofits, you’ve got lots of money – who’s going to connect the dots?”
Who’s going to connect the dots?
Charest decided to give it a shot.
With support from Bill Chaney, senior pastor at Valley Christian Center, Valley Dream Center secured a $1.5 million loan for the property from The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel that needs to be paid back within three years. They’ve raised about $150,000 so far. Once that goal is reached, rent from community groups with offices on the campus should sustain the cost of ongoing operations, estimated at around $250,000 a year. They are also looking to upgrade buildings and appliances. Campus facilities were built from 1915 to 1990.
Charest says at least 12 churches from Sacramento to Bakersfield have expressed interest in starting dream centers of their own.
“My hope is this will be an example that other people will want to reproduce. If everybody could just concentrate on a 1-mile radius … and then find partners to help them do that … it’s like dropping stones in the pond. Every little ripple finally intersects with the other ripple.”
How to help
Valley Dream Center will hold a grand opening from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 13, that will include talks from NFL athletes Anthony McCoy and Tim Collier, founders of GOAL, a partner of Valley Dream Center. Donations to Valley Dream Center can be made online at valleydreamcenter.org or by contacting Tish Standley, director of operations, at 559-252-1901 ext. 17 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The public is also invited to attend a free meet-and-greet with the Harlem Globetrotters, who will be performing basketball tricks and demonstrations at Valley Dream Center’s sports and fitness arena at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15. Students from nearby Ericson Elementary School will be in attendance. Globetrotter tickets and a basketball and jersey will be raffled off.