Community leader’s vision builds on street-level approach to service

Feb. 11, 2019

By Steve Young, for SiouxFalls.Business

Rich Merkouris has a theory about collaboration.

Could it be by working together more effectively, with less duplication, that Sioux Falls might end the nights when hungry children stand in Munchies convenience store on West 11th Street and have to hand back food items they can’t afford to the clerk?

Is it possible that volunteers at the Furniture Mission delivering chairs and sofas to a sparsely furnished apartment would no longer arrive to find a 6-year-old girl home alone taking care of her 2-year-old brother?

Or what if the chaplain working with the local police department — as Merkouris does — had to knock on one less door to deliver the news that a tormented soul had chosen death over life?

“Too many stories like that here in Sioux Falls,” the 36-year-old pastor at King of Glory Church and president of the Kingdom Capital Fund says of all of the above. “I could write a book. Unfortunately, there are a lot of sad endings.”

Just weeks ago, he hoped to write a new chapter for some of the city’s most struggling residents. He’d put together a strategy to purchase the former South Dakota School for the Deaf campus, bringing the seven nonprofits located in the Sioux Falls Ministry Center to the large site and inviting other local ministries and nonprofits to join them.

He and others worked fervently to meet a Jan. 31 deadline to find the collaboration and finances necessary to buy the 14.35-acre collection of classrooms, boarding rooms, gymnasium and green space from the South Dakota Board of Regents.

It would have taken almost $7 million to buy the property. And they were getting awfully close, he said. But not close enough.

“The difficulty of working with the government entities, the complexity of pulling together multiple nonprofits in a defined window of time meant it ultimately didn’t come together,” he said.

“We’d love the opportunity to go back at it if there was a different approach.”

Merkouris sees an opportunity there to build even further upon the good work being done now by nonprofits in the community and by the Sioux Falls Ministry Center, where a diverse and struggling population can turn for assistance with clothing, transportation, housing, utilities, daytime and after-school child care, acute medical care, parenting and addiction counseling, immigrant and refugee issues, and more.

He envisions additional entities, including those focused on youth-related programming, working in partnership.

“We want to bring these groups together and ask, ‘Hey, who’s doing what in this community? Maybe there’s some duplication? How can we have an even greater impact?’ ”

Talk like that resonates with Mayor Paul TenHaken. Like Merkouris, the mayor counts his blessings to be living in a community where, for example, any number of different entities might conduct wintertime coat and clothing drives each year. Such efforts are great, and the city needs those, TenHaken said. But how much greater would the impact be if those efforts and resources were combined and shared, he asked.

“I think sometimes nonprofits, for-profits, I mean a lot of us, we get a little bit of tunnel vision on the vision and the mission of our organization, and we fail to realize the larger vision/mission of the entire community,” TenHaken said. “I think Rich kind of subscribes to that belief that says, ‘Hey, how can we unite some of these causes so that, you know, individually we’re strong, but collectively we’re a lot stronger?’ ”

‘Go out and help people’

Merkouris’ own personal story is an intriguing one. Long ago, as a student at the University of Sioux Falls, he believed his future was in education, teaching math and maybe one day becoming a principal. But ongoing conversations with USF professor and Sioux Falls City Councilor Kermit Staggers about politics and the role of government in people’s lives began to alter Merkouris’ path.

Staggers would challenge the young student frequently to think differently about whose responsibility it was to help people, said Erica Beck, who is TenHaken’s chief of staff but also a good friend to Merkouris. Government has a role, sure, Staggers told him. But really, helping our neighbors is a responsibility belonging to everybody, he said.

“Kermit told him, ‘If you truly want to help people, here’s what you need to do. You need to get out of the classroom and get out of your office and get off your soapbox, so to speak, and literally go out and help people,’ ” Beck said. “In talking to Rich, it truly shaped who he is today.”

Staggers connected his student back then with a family who needed help, including a boy in that household whom Merkouris started mentoring. Being exposed to that kind of poverty was enlightening to a young man who had spent his middle and high school years insulated from that in the Minnesota farming community where he lived. Additionally, work Merkouris started doing for the Furniture Mission about 12 years ago, delivering chairs, sofas and other items on Saturday mornings to households, introduced him as well to the haunting realities of young children left home alone to care for their younger siblings.

“It was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize,’ ” Merkouris said. “That really started my passion for daycare and children, when you’d see these kids home alone. That was eye-opening. It was a different world.”

People began to suggest to him that he consider a career in ministry. Driven by his conversations with Staggers and by his continuing exposure to needs in the community, Merkouris enrolled in North American Baptist Seminary, now called Sioux Falls Seminary. As his passion for serving others continued to grow, a thunderbolt struck one day.

The boy he had mentored years earlier committed suicide.

“When I look back at it now, that’s definitely been a driving force in my life, to not let that happen again even though I know it was not my fault,” Merkouris said. “But knowing that I was directly right in the middle of that situation for a while … well, I know obviously I can’t save every child. But I’ll do what I can for any situation that I run into like that.”

It’s seldom easy. What Merkouris has learned is that life for those in need is incredibly complex. There are so many entities that could help. But “if they aren’t working together, helping that person forward … that’s really driven me to say we need collaboration between those entities,” he said.

A couple of things make him a leader in that discussion, Beck said. His work on the School for the Deaf project is one example. “The fact that he’s able to share that he’s willing to come to the table and talk about what his organizations are good at and acknowledge what they can’t do as well is a good model for others to consider for their own organizations,” she said.

But Merkouris also leads by example. His ministry work puts him out on the front lines, working as a chaplain for the Sioux Falls Police Department and Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Department, and knocking on doors when a family needs to be told that a loved one has committed suicide or died in an accident.

His father, a Lutheran pastor, used to tell him that 90 percent of succeeding in his profession involved simply showing up when he was most needed. “ ‘If you show up, you’re one of the best pastors they ever had,’ ” his father told him. “I’ve adopted that in my life in the chaplaincy. At the most difficult times, people don’t even remember what you said but only that you were there.”

Several times a month, this husband and father of three small children wanders the streets of the Pettigrew Heights neighborhood late at night, praying for the businesses and homes that don’t even know he’s there. Merkouris’ hope is always to encounter at least one person on those walks. If they’re homeless, he may pay for a motel room for the night. If they’re hungry, he’ll walk to the convenience store nearby to purchase food for them.

One evening, he found four children at Munchies having to return food items to the clerk because they couldn’t afford them. Merkouris paid for the items and then walked with them back to their efficiency apartment. When he found out the lock to the door was broken, he fixed it.

“I think many of us often don’t take the time to do those same things that he’s doing,” Beck said. “But he knows that he has to do them in order to truly make an impact in a positive way in that neighborhood.”

Making an impact

An impact? It’s almost impossible to count all the ways Merkouris is leading change in the Sioux Falls community. He and the Sioux Falls Ministry Center own and operate two apartment buildings that are focused on providing affordable housing to the community. Working with First Premier Bank as a lending partner, they also are buying housing units in Pettigrew Heights between Minnesota and West avenues from Sixth to 16th streets, renovating and making them available to rent by low-income families.

Part of that project is enlisting what Merkouris calls “loving landlords” to work with what they eventually hope will be 35 housing units. Landlords who will mow the grass, unclog drains, conduct quarterly inspections “and just build relationships with these families,” he said.

There’s more. Merkouris’ full-time gig is president of the Kingdom Capital Fund. Started a decade ago by five Sioux Falls businessmen, Kingdom Capital solicits cash and non-cash gifts, invests all of it in entrepreneurial projects and then distributes the proceeds to Christian ministries locally, nationally and internationally. One organization the fund supports is Collision, a program that nurtures teen-led Christian groups in the community’s various schools. This year, Kingdom Capital is also donating to Partners Worldwide, an agency that does microlending to programs in impoverished African communities.

Over the past decade, Kingdom Capital has invested $3.4 million. In 2016, a landowner in southwest Minnesota offered farmland for a season so that Kingdom Capital could raise a crop with donated seed, fertilizer, machinery and labor, and then sell what was harvested and keep the proceeds.

That opportunity is coming again now in 2019. Similarly, the venture fund also will benefit this year from land, materials and labor that are being donated to build a villa home in Sioux Falls’ Prairie Green neighborhood. Once the home is finished and sold, Kingdom Capital will get the check.

Merkouris serves on the board of directors for the Hope Coalition, a collaboration of the Sioux Falls School District, Sioux Empire United Way, faith-based programs, businesspeople and individuals that is just finishing its second year of work to try to ensure that all low-income students who want to attend preschool can do so. With a need to assist up to 325 such children, the group is looking to existing programs to open up additional space or to open satellite programs in neighborhoods where there are needs.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Merkouris also serves as the senior pastor at King of Glory Church on the weekends.

None of that, though, achieves his biggest goal.

“The big vision for me has always been a conveyor belt of services in one place,” he said, circling back to where his year began.

“The School for the Deaf is a place where someone can go from homeless to thriving. A place for their kids and job training and counseling all in one place.”

If not there, then hopefully somewhere. Some time soon. Because while the property might not have worked out, the vision lives on.

TenHaken tells the story of participating in a debate when he was running for mayor and being asked to name a role model in his life. He said he didn’t hesitate to point to this man who, in the mayor’s mind, quietly and efficiently embodies servant leadership.

“I could say his name in a lot of circles, and people wouldn’t know him,” TenHaken said. “But the impact that Rich is having in our city is tremendous. What he’s doing and the people he’s serving in the city is so valued and appreciated because he’s not waiting for the government to step up and create programs. He’s just doing it. He’s running with it, and he’s using his networks to get stuff done.

“I’ll be honest. I need about a hundred more Rich Merkourises in this city.”

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Community leader’s vision builds on street-level approach to service

“I could say his name in a lot of circles, and people wouldn’t know him,” Mayor Paul TenHaken said. “But the impact that Rich is having in our city is tremendous.” Meet Rich Merkouris, a servant leader with a big vision.

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