September 30, 2022

Loan anchors church rebirth as center for families in crisis

By: Derek Maul

Lisa Negrini
Dr. Lisa Negrini (center) became executive director of Learning Empowered in April 2021. (Learning Empowered photo)

When single mother Tavia Holloman experienced a family crisis coming out of homelessness, she found the Learning Empowered agency, and it changed her life.

“They always made sure my family had the resources we needed, connecting me with different services,” she said. “They taught me about community and engagement and empowering others.

“It’s about what they showed me more than what they gave me. Hands on positive reinforcement — they were literally there, always providing respite and balance.”

Holloman, who now works in the front office at Disston Academy in Gulfport, is unambiguous about the impact Learning Empowered had on her family.

“Honestly, everything,” she said. “I seek balance every day because of them. They are part of my community.”

“I represent the parent portion of things,” she said. “Also, the finance committee and hospitality. Everything is new and moving forward.”

Holloman also speaks at events, representing both the board and the perspective of a client family.

“This is my second year,” she said. “I am honored to be chosen.”

Learning Empowered is able to help Holloman and families like hers thanks, in part, to a $1.3 million loan from the Florida United Methodist Foundation’s Development Fund.

The loan enabled the agency to purchase the former St. Mark’s United Methodist Church campus in St. Petersburg, which it had been leasing. The new space allows staff to consolidate administration, which was taking place in an office block in Largo that needed capital improvements, and client services at one site.

It’s not the first time the agency and foundation have been partners. Purchasing Learning Empowered’s former office block was also made possible through a foundation loan.

In early 2016, the ministry, then known as UMCM Suncoast, was forced to relocate. While operating from the former Faith United Methodist Church in Largo, the building was sold to new owners who gave the agency six weeks to find new space.

“I love it — the mission, the family of people who work here, the community support, the (UMC) conference support. It’s amazing. We’re not alone but surrounded by a faith community that’s rooting for us.” — Dr. Lisa Negrini, Learning Empowered executive director

At the end of February 2016, the foundation approved a $1.12 million loan that helped the agency purchase and renovate The Commons, two 8,580-square foot office buildings. After six months of renovations, the agency moved into the first building. The second was occupied by renters who paid a monthly fee.

The agency sold that property to move all operations to the St. Mark’s campus.

“If we must do extensive work, we want it to be where we’re doing programing,” Executive Director Dr. Lisa Negrini said. “Plus, when administration is onsite, it helps the quality of service-delivery.”

Tavia Holloman, Learning Empowered client and board member, shares her story.

Location, location, location

The project is also a huge win for the area surrounding the former Methodist church.

Like many suburban churches, St. Mark’s lost its foothold in the changing neighborhood. Its membership declined, and the church eventually closed. But the demographics that challenged the church — less property ownership, increased racial diversity, more single parent homes, more financial stress among families — have also made the location the right place for Learning Empowered.

Negrini has been at the helm since April 2021.

“I love it,” she said. “The mission, the family of people who work here, the community support, the (UMC) conference support. It’s amazing. We’re not alone but surrounded by a faith community that’s rooting for us.”

Learning Empowered — launched in 1975 as United Methodist Cooperative Ministries and a social service agency of the now Florida Conference Gulf Central District — remains a ministry under the conference umbrella.

“The name change helps counter the perception that we’re supported exclusively by the church,” she said. “And also does a better job of describing who we are.”

Rebranding has made it easier to secure community resources designed to target the agency’s core mission of education, child development and family empowerment.

Negrini came to Learning Empowered with a three-decade history of clinical social work, family studies, hands on engagement, and a doctorate in early childhood development.

“I was longing to be back in grassroots community work — mission-driven for families with concrete needs,” she said.

Making a difference

Negrini says the needs in the community surrounding the St. Mark’s campus have been exacerbated by COVID, inflation and the uncertainties of recent history, serving “those who traditionally have not had access to services because of various barriers and challenges.”

“The root cause of distress is poverty and racism,” she said. “There is not a good structure of equity in our community. We see intergenerational cycles of oppression and poor access to education across the lifespan.”

Negrini says the agency is empowering families to meet their goals.

“Good early learning sets up for success in kindergarten and primary school. Otherwise, they never catch up,” she said. “Supporting families, literacy for families … we’re really invested in making sure the families understand the importance of partnering with schools.”

Currently, the agency’s 55 staff members serve around 250 family units.

“We will be growing to reach more families,” Negrini said. “I’d like to see us double the number. St. Mark’s is an incredible space, and huge. This purchase allows us to implement the vision of a flagship center with administration onsite, along with services. … We can stay with families longer.”

Learning Empowered goes beyond housing support to connect families with community resources.

The future

While extremely pleased with the impact the foundation’s loan is having, Negrini said the board continues to work with multiple sources for additional funding.

A $500,000 grant from the Pinellas Community Foundation will help convert the sanctuary into community space, classrooms and a center for families, incorporating arts, music, cognitive development and more.

“We want to make this a real campus for the community,” she said. “That’s why we’re applying for other grants, such as an ARPA grant (American Rescue Plan Act) for expansion of the playground and other projects. We plan to give kids opportunities to use this campus as a resource.”

“They always made sure my family had the resources we needed, connecting me with different services. They taught me about community and engagement and empowering others. … Hands on positive reinforcement — they were literally there, always providing respite and balance.” — Tavia Holloman, Learning Empowered client, board member

The agency will also conduct a capital campaign to secure private donations for brick-and-mortar plans.

Negrini credits her board for making so much progress possible.

“They are incredibly helpful,” she said. “We just had our August strategic planning session, and we’re doing a lot of community outreach — focus groups, surveys, trying to discover … the gaps in services.”

In addition to its core educational emphases, Negrini says the agency also provides a food pantry in partnership with the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, early childhood mental health support and programs for citizenship, immigration, legal support, family literacy and rent readiness.

Andy Craske, the foundation’s vice president of loans and investments, said the loan is “one of those win-wins — a good deal on every side.”

“We’re going to help, because of their connection and because of their mission,” he said. “It’s about families.”

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The foundation’s Development Fund offers low-interest loans for new construction, loan refinancing and a wide variety of other capital projects — bathroom updates, kitchen renovations, nursery refresh, parking lot expansion and repairs, worship tech upgrades, roof repairs, food pantry builds, and creative projects such as solar farm development.

Since its launch in 1976, the Development Fund has loaned more the $408 million to churches and agencies, helping build new sanctuaries so more people can worship, renovate areas for youth so young people can grow in a Christian environment, provide space for services and programs that help people in need. The list of ministry possibilities is endless.

More information about Foundations loans is available at or by contacting Andy Craske, vice president of loans and investments, at or 863-904-2970, ext. 7104.

Maul is a freelance writer based in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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