Abell Salutes: Allan M. Tibbels

September 2010 / Salutes / Community Development, Criminal Justice and Addiction

In appreciation of his remarkable life in Sandtown.

Allan Tibbels died on Thursday, June 3, 2010, just days before the organization he founded in 1989, Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, completed its 278th home in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore. The rehabbing of these once-blighted, boarded up houses in this severely distressed neighborhood was not only the measure of the progress of Sandtown Habitat, but it was also the measure of Allan Tibbels’ passion for justice. His mission was to eliminate the vacant housing, rebuild the neighborhood and provide stability in the lives of the homeowners. By his own admission, it was a tremendous undertaking. “The need here in Sandtown is overwhelming,” he said. “I can’t meet it all. Need is all around me.”

Allan Tibbels’ embrace of the Sandtown communities’ needs began in 1986, when he, a quadriplegic as a result of an injury while playing basketball, and his wife Susan, their two young daughters, and friend Mark Gornik, a seminary graduate, decided to move from surburban Howard County into Sandtown. They not only changed where they lived, they changed how they would live: According to Karen Free writing in Habitat World, “They wanted to live out the principles of the John Perkins model of Christian community development, which calls for the sharing of the gospel with others through social action and economic development.” Their vision was to relocate and live and work among their neighbors in Sandtown and have the needs of the community become their needs as well. When then 31-year-old Allan Tibbels moved into a dilapidated house in Sandtown 24 years ago, he was living out this vision and his faith.

Tibbels’ and Gornik’s first initiative was to found New Song Community Church two years later in 1988. Together with neighbors’ support, energy and commitment, they began the work of rebuilding their community—family by family. In the process, it became clear to them: a critical need of Sandown was safe, decent and affordable housing. 

To address this need, a year later, in 1989, they organized Sandown Habitat for Humanity, enlisting thousands of volunteers to share in support of the effort. After 20 years, the volunteers and a full-time staff of mostly residents from the neighborhood, completed the rehabilitation of more than 275 homes, mostly gut rehabs, but including 27 newly constructed units as well. Of the progress, Tibbels said, “The houses that were condemned aren’t condemned anymore. Sandtown has set as its focus the renewal of a 15-square block area and it’s just about accomplished. Work will radiate out from there until all of the houses are decent again.” Allan Tibbels’ vision was coming true, incrementally, month by month, house by house.

These were numbers by which Allan Tibbels kept score on his life, but they weren’t the only numbers. He envisioned a program that would provide comprehensive community development, widening the focus of New Song’s housing rehab program to take in healthcare and educational services.

In 1990 he helped to establish New Song Family Health Services, to accommodate the Sandtown residents’ health care requirements. The program coordinates the work of Peoples Community Health in providing primary care, as well as the New Song Health Co-op that offers health education and personalized consultations for neighbors with health-related issues. In 1991 he led the effort to found New Song Community Learning Center, to address the educational needs of the children in Sandtown. The Center now operates a preschool to 8th grade public school (under the New Schools Initiative) and develops leaders from the community, providing year-round educational opportunities for children and their families.

Tibbels recognized, too, the need for economic development, and helped to create the EDEN Jobs; the agency provides job placement, referrals and training services for community residents as well as small business development. An example is the start-up of Gerry’s Goods, a neighborhood owned and operated coffee shop/convenience store in the heart of the New Song focus area. New Song is also in partnership with one of the only local Sandtown pastors who welcomed this fledgling group of people over 24 years ago, Elder C.W. Harris and his wife Amelia. Both are life-long neighborhood residents who, inspired by the work of New Song, began Newborn Holistic Ministries, which operates Martha’s Place, a residential treatment facility for women in recovery, and Jubilee Arts, a community arts development program for children and adults.

Allan Tibbels had the vision that saw all this as possible, and the perseverance, love and commitment to help it become reality. At the Sandtown Habitat house dedication two days after Allan passed away, one of his co-workers said, “We are committed to continuing his legacy. We miss him dearly, but we will continue to do the things he would want us to be doing.” Day by day – the work goes on.

Allan Tibbels would have liked that.