Earlier this year Kokomo Urban Outreach, founded by Jeff Newton, senior pastor at Hillsdale UMC, was inducted into the Howard County Historical Society Hall of Legends. Each year the Howard County Historical Society (HCHS) honors people and organizations that have made a significant impact on the community.

Sharon Reed, President of the HCHS Board of Trustees, stated, “While coming from different times and different life experiences, this year’s inductees into the Howard County Hall of Legends shared a common thread. All loved their communities so much that they dedicated their lives to improving the quality of life for all residents and, in some cases, impacting the state and entire nation.”

When Jeff moved back from Northwest Indiana to his hometown of Kokomo, Indiana, he wanted to help churches be intentional about taking care of their neighborhoods. In 2006, he founded Kokomo Urban Outreach (KUO) to focus on hunger needs within the community. After 10 years of serving the community, KUO shifted their focus to equipping youth with life skills that will help them be successful in future careers.

Newton explained, “Helping people with hunger is important, and there are many groups in town that do that. However, helping people just with hunger means that you’re helping them get through poverty, but not out of it.”

In 2016 Newton talked to over 100 community leaders and realized that education and mentorship was going to be key in seeing the desired change. Out of these conversations came the UP™ programs, which are designed to help children and teenagers develop skills to be self-reliant as they move towards adulthood.

All of the programs center around the four R’s— I am Respectful, I am Responsible, I am Reliable, and I am Ready. The UP™ program gives teenagers, ages 10-18, the opportunity to work and earn points that can be redeemed for gift cards. Projects often include yard work such as pulling weeds, planting gardens, or mowing. In the winter months, students take classes in cooking, budgeting, using tools, woodworking, and electrical wiring. In addition, the UP™ program works to build soft skills such as being on time, shaking hands, and keeping your cell phone away while working.

UP™ students help with raking leaves.

In the Hall of Legends online ceremony, Jeff tells a story of a student named Jonah, who started the program when he was 13 years old. For three years, Jonah saved up all of his points and was able to buy a car when he turned 16. Newton noted that a lot of kids use their gift cards to buy basic necessities to help their family, like paper products or medication.

In MiniUP™, a program for 3-8 year olds, students also learn about the four R’s, help with outdoor projects, and develop social skills. Jeff told a story about when MiniUp™ students received new winter coats for their work. He asked a girl who had given her the coat, and she replied, “Nobody gave me this coat. I earned it myself!” Even in the younger program, KUO emphasizes earning money as a result of hard work.

MiniUp™ student plays in the gym.

The Learning Center is the final branch of the UP™ program that opened in August of 2020 as a response to the challenges of the pandemic. The KUO staff recognized that there were students doing remote learning that didn’t have the tools they needed to be successful. In response, they opened up the Learning Center to provide a space with internet access, tutoring help, and meals in order to help students get back on track in their classes.

Study space available to students at the Learning Center.

Jeff recognizes that none of these programs would be possible without the exceptional support of the community and donors who believe in the mission of KUO. In 2019, the MiniUP™ program had 100 participants, and the UP™ program had 165. As a result of the teaching and experience, teachers and parents have noted improved grades and attitudes from their students. The “U”, “P”, in the UP™ program stands for Unlimited Potential, which is what the staff truly believes about the students that participate in the program.

This is not the first time that KUO has been recognized for their work. In 2012 and 2019, KUO was presented the Impact Award by the Greater Kokomo Chamber of Commerce. The impact that Kokomo Urban Outreach has had on the lives of children undoubtedly holds incredible potential for children in Howard County and beyond.

To learn more about Kokomo Urban Outreach, visit their website.