It has been a long journey for the Reverend Odell Cleveland. It all started on Sycamore Avenue as he was brought up in the streets of West Ashley. He eventually went on to Middleton High School as he starred for the varsity basketball team, leading them to a state title in 1977. Upon graduation, Cleveland became a captain for the National Champion Division II University of South Carolina at Spartanburg (now USC Upstate). He used that education and leadership to run one of the most prominent organizations in the nation today.
Cleveland founded America’s first faith-based community action agency, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, two decades ago in Greensboro, North Carolina. What started out in a side annex of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where Odell now serves as chief administrative officer, grew into a $100 million nonprofit organization with an outsized impact on North Carolina’s most marginalized.
Promoting self-sufficiency for low-income families through employment training and the distribution of donated products, Odell built a solutions-driven agency that would come to be heralded as a pioneering model by the head of President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
With long-term partnerships with Walmart, CVS, Men’s Wearhouse and other major corporations, the Welfare Reform Liaison Project has placed more than 1,000 Greensboro residents in career-developing jobs. Earnings by the men and women who graduated WRLP’s training programs totaled nearly $10 million in the first decade after Odell opened the ministry’s doors, and the ranks of those who have worked their way out of welfare has grown ever since.
Those numbers only tell half the story, however. Raised up and out of poverty by a divorced single mother who suffered a massive stroke at the age of 25, Odell’s journey from tragedy to triumph is an inspiring testament to the power of faith and hard work. Odell learned early on that the pathway to prosperity is a hand up, not a handout: In 3rd grade, his mother walked three miles in a leg brace to make sure Odell was not shunted off into a special-education class.
Today, Odell is responsible for the day-to-day management of Greensboro’s 5,000-member Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He handed over the reins at the Welfare Reform Liaison Project in 2013, two years after Oxford University Press published a history of WRLP that Odell co-authored, “Pracademics and Community Change: A True Story of Nonprofit Development and Social Entrepreneurship During Welfare Reform.”
Odell is also president of Cal Tee Solutions LLC, which for the past decade has served as a conduit for his business solutions to social ills. Ordained as a Baptist minister at Hood Theological Seminary, Odell is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and at Greensboro College, and is a frequent keynote speaker at faith-based and community workshops and conferences.