Reverend Odell Cleveland founded America’s first faith-based community action agency, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, two decades ago in Greensboro, North Carolina. What started out in a side annex of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where he now serves as chief administrative officer, grew into a $100 million nonprofit organization with an outsized impact on North Carolina’s most marginalized.

Promoting self-sufficiency for low-income families through employment training and the distribution of donated products, Rev. Cleveland built a solutions-driven agency that would come to be heralded as a pioneering model by the head of President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

With long-term partnerships with Walmart, CVS, Men’s Wearhouse, and other major corporations, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project has placed more than 1,000 Greensboro residents in career-developing jobs. Earnings by the men and women who graduated WRLP’s training programs totaled nearly $10 million in the first decade after Rev. Cleveland opened the ministry’s doors, and the ranks of those who have worked their way out of welfare has grown ever since.

Those numbers only tell half the story, however. Raised up and out of poverty by a divorced single mother who suffered a massive stroke at the age of 25, Rev. Cleveland’s journey from tragedy to triumph is an inspiring testament to the power of faith and hard work. He learned early on that the pathway to prosperity is a hand up, not a handout: In 3rd grade, his mother walked three miles in a leg brace to make sure the boy was not shunted off into a special-education class.

Today, Rev. Cleveland is responsible for the day-to-day management of Greensboro’s 5,000-member Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He handed over the reins at the Welfare Reform Liaison Project in 2013, two years after Oxford University Press published a history of WRLP that he co-authored, “Pracademics and Community Change: A True Story of Nonprofit Development and Social Entrepreneurship During Welfare Reform.”

He is also president of Cal Tee Solutions LLC, which for the past decade has served as a conduit for his business solutions to social ills. Ordained as a Baptist minister at Hood Theological Seminary, Rev. Cleveland is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and at Greensboro College and is a frequent keynote speaker at faith-based and community workshops and conferences.

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