When Beth Cossin first introduced me to Jeff and Cheryl Mansell, I didn't quite follow what she was telling me.
"They are a great example of a couple who have spent many years in church ministry and then turned their life upside down to work with children in public schools."
We rounded the corner and I saw them for the first time. Cheryl, I recognized from my time with Wesleyan Women. Equal parts elegant and buoyant, Cheryl's radiant smile was framed by a cute bob. Jeff, I had not seen before and I was struck immediately by the tall line he cut in the crowd. His light blue eyes emanated gentleness and warmth.
Over lunch the next day, I learned the story Beth had been trying to tell me in the hustle and bustle of our first introduction: the Mansell's journey out of District administration into community development.
"God laid a vision on my heart for church planting in urban areas," Jeff explained. For 34 years, he and Cheryl had served the Wesleyan Church, first as pastors and then later as denominational leaders.
But in 2012, Jeff resigned from his post as the District Superintendent of the Greater Ohio District to become the Executive Director of Seven Baskets, and Cheryl joined him in the work.
"The name comes from Mark 8," Cheryl explained as we ate, "when Jesus fed the 4000 and seven baskets were left over. We took this as a promise that God would provide for us, for the ministry, and for those we serve."
Their vision for Seven Baskets was to create a presence in Columbus's urban neighborhoods. They dreamed of cultivating the kind of trust and receptivity that would nurture a foundation for future pastors to later build on.
"We want to join hands with our neighborhoods, and ask 'What do you want to see happen?' We're here to link arms." Jeff's eyes lit with excitement as he spoke and I noted throughout our conversation just how energized he and Cheryl were about the work they are doing through Seven Baskets.
They knew that their entry point into the local communities needed to be through the school systems. And so with that in mind, they applied to become recognized partners with Columbus City Schools, the largest school district in the state of Ohio.
They were approved by the School's Community Partnership Committee, and from there, Jeff and Cheryl prayed for a neighborhood where they felt God would have them serve. They landed on Leawood Elementary and the surrounding neighborhood. The first step was reaching out to the principal of Leawood.
"Our way into the community has been through setting up a tutoring and after school program in the school," Jeff explained.
Using the tutoring program as the cornerstone of their work, the Mansells have gone on to offer other services and programs. Each fall they collect hats and gloves as well as school supplies for the teachers to distribute to the children.
With the help of District churches and a grant from The Wesleyan Church's Hope and Holiness Trust Fund, they purchased a dilapidated house adjacent to school property and renovated it. A beautiful new playground was installed in the yard largely funded by a grant from United Way.
Cheryl smiled over her food as she talked about the community house. "Teachers and families have told us how grateful they are that we renovated that house. They say it's changed their commute to work!"
This house has become a community center and has become a hub for Seven Baskets as they continue to reach out to the community. One of their programs is the "Leader-In-Me Cooking Club."
Pictures from the Seven Basket's Facebook page reveal a room full of anxious kids sitting around long white tables eyeing the ingredients for pizza bagels. They each wear white aprons as adult volunteers help them layer their culinary masterpieces.
Cheryl posts that not only did they teach the kids how to make lunch with pizza bagels, carrots and pretzels, but they also helped them calculate how much it costs to buy the ingredients, where to find them in the store, and how to cook them for their families.
"The morale is changing because of Seven Baskets in the [school]," Cheryl said.
From my view, sharing lunch with the Mansells and listening to their passion for their work, it's not hard to see how they are winning the hearts and minds of the teachers and students at Leawood, as well as the community surrounding the school.
Not only are Jeff and Cheryl kind, supportive, and loving, they bring to their ministry the kind of seasoned faithfulness and dependability that only years in ministry can cultivate.
Jeff lent me insight into their ministry approach. "We are creating a sustainable model. We recognize our limits. We don't oversell what we can offer, but what we can do, we follow-up on and give it 100%."
I nod my head in agreement. How refreshing it must be to work with Jeff and Cheryl, to know that they will do what they say, and what they can't do, they will admit.
This level of commitment to the community, along with their hearts for reconciliation are what is winning them and Seven Baskets a name and place in the city.
Though they have begun with just one or two schools, they, of course, plan to see the Seven Baskets model multiply throughout Ohio.
"Our method is collaboration," Jeff explained. "We are just a piece of the whole. We want our group to add to the next group and the next until we make a difference in the neighborhood."
Faith Community Wesleyan Church, in Columbus, has been inspired by the work the Mansells are doing. As a result, they partnered with Oakland Park Elementary school which sits directly next door to the church.
The principal at Oakland Park Elementary was so excited to have the help and support of the Wesleyan congregation that he told his wife, a teacher assistant at Leawood, "We have our very own Seven Baskets now!"
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