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Greenhouse Project Offers Hope for Chester

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John Clifford has a plan to save a troubled city—one person at a time.

In 2018, John Clifford and his wife, Emily, decided to buy a home. They chose Chester, a city in despair with staggering crime rates, drug abuse, extreme poverty and one of the worst school districts in Pennsylvania. Why Chester?

Fifteen years ago, John was lying in a prison cell. “I was a junkie and a criminal,” he recalls. “I’d lost everything and destroyed every relationship. I thought I had nowhere to go.”

Upon his release, he landed in Chester, where a rescue mission took him in. What was supposed to be a one-year recovery program became a decade of helping people like himself. Clifford took on a leadership role, running the rescue mission kitchen and food service program, where he served three meals a day to a broken, under-resourced community. But he wanted to do more. “I served over a half-million meals and organized tons of food drives, but it wasn’t making a dent in the community,” says Clifford.

At the time, Clifford was living in a neighborhood outside of Chester. He was sure he could make an impact on the city and its people, though he knew he couldn’t do it from the outside. “The word compassion is actually two Latin words fused together. Translated literally, it means ‘to suffer with.’ Compassion means walking in the pain, together, with a person,” he says. “If I was truly going to make an impact, I needed to be in the community, in their struggle.”

With a new vision for their future, the Cliffords moved into their newly renovated Chester home in the fall of 2019 with the sole purpose of serving and helping others. This is where their faith-based nonprofit Greenhouse Project began. “A greenhouse allows things to grow where they otherwise couldn’t,” says Clifford. “At Greenhouse Project, we wake up here, we hang out late at night with our neighbors, we meet all kinds of interesting people. The kids on the block do homework in our kitchen and play basketball next to our house. We have church in our living room, pick up trash on the streets, mow our neighbors’ lawns.”

John Clifford and his wife Emily began Greenhouse Project two years ago to help people grow in difficult places like Chester, PA.

John attributes his path to his faith. “God led me this way. My faith gave me hope when I was in prison. It helped me get sober. It brought me here,” he says. “It’s why I know Greenhouse Project will help bring life transformation to this community.”

In 2020, when the pandemic brought Chester to new levels of struggle, Greenhouse Project thrived. “It was a year we laid the soil, so to speak, for how God wants to grow our ministry,” Clifford reflects. “We began cultivating long-term relationships with our neighbors by living life with them, providing safe environments for church fellowship, free recovery counseling, life coaching and family transformation.”

Clifford and his growing team of staff and volunteers have already counseled over 100 addicts and their loved ones this year. They distribute more than 3,000 pounds of fresh food every week across Chester and West Philly. The team built a community garden, providing fresh produce and opportunities for neighbors to learn about growing food. In September, they launched a homework club, mentoring at-risk youth. “The single moms and grandmothers raising these little ones come every week and consider it a safe haven for their family,” says Clifford.

     

Clifford is eager to get more people involved, with plans to expand outreach efforts, grow the house church and bring the homework club to a second location. “This is a really tough place to grow up and live,” he says. “Greenhouse Project is changing that one story, one struggling person at a time.

Greenhouse Project relies most heavily on the help from supporters with a heart for those on the fringe of society. “We have a growing community of generous partners,” Clifford says. “Supporting our ministry financially or by serving with us is an opportunity for anyone anywhere to be part of a life-change story, for a city and its people.”

     

So, can one man save a city?

“No, not me,” Clifford says. “But us … my neighbors, these families, our donors and volunteers. Yes, I believe we can. We can change Chester from a place to get away from to a neighborhood where people want to be.”

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