Guiding light: Jan Ridgeway has spent years, her own money, on aiding CLE's most needy

For a dozen years, Jan Ridgeway has given much of her money and most of her time to Garden Valley Neighborhood House. As executive director of the largest food pantry in Northeast Ohio, she’s fed, clothed, furnished, taught, and inspired Garden Valley, part of the Kinsman neighborhood—one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods.

Now. Ridgeway is trying to pull back a little. It’s hard to say whose challenge is tougher: hers in pulling back, or locals in letting her.

“I need to get Garden Valley out of my pocket,” says Ridgeway, its president and “interim” director for a dozen years. “I can’t afford to carry it like I’ve done in the past. My whole retirement check from Alaska every month went to this center. I lived on my Ohio check.”

Garden Valley Neighborhood House food pantry distributionNow she’s trying to lessen her expenses and stress while recovering from breast and lymph node cancer. She’s also recovering from several losses, including that of Quinton Durham, her partner in Garden Valley and life, who died in 2021 from pancreatic cancer.

Ridgeway has turned over the food pantry to the nonprofit Bigman’s Family Center. And she’s seeking another nonprofit to run the house’s overall services—like programs that promote nutrition, increase self-sufficiency, instill hope, provide community education services, and promote advocacy—and reopen the rest of it, which closed during the pandemic.

But associates say that no one can really replace Ridgeway. Jessica Morgan, chief programs officer of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, which helps stock the pantry, says, “I don’t know that I’ve met a more caring, humble, well-connected person. She’s one in a million. Her level of care really knows no bounds.”

Danielle Cawthorne, a volunteer at Garden Valley, says, “If it weren’t for Miss Jan, half the time we wouldn’t have enough food in our homes. She changed the way we eat. Without Jan, we would be less healthy. She inspires us so much.”

Long-time Garden Valley client William Grady says, “She saved my life one time” when he collapsed at the pantry. She called for an ambulance and tended him meanwhile.

Associates say that Neighborhood House needs to find new leaders sooner or later, and Ridgeway needs to step back. But not too far.

“She will still be involved as a consultant,” says Mary Cordray, a liaison to Garden Valley Neighborhood House from John Knox Presbyterian Church, which helps support it. “She has to stay involved.”

Bigman’s leader, Obatiola Sauriika “Riika” Songofunmi, says of Ridgeway, “I don’t think that she’s stepping down. She’s just moving over to the side a little bit.”

Pernel Jones Jr., Cuyahoga County Council president and District 8 councilman, hopes that Garden Valley Neighborhood House weathers the change. “It’s a critical need in the community.”

A dedicated woman
Ridgeway figures that she’s put at least $115,000 into Garden Valley Neighborhood House—a 1918 settlement house in a 1924 complex at 7100 Kinsman Ave., on the edge of the Kinsman neighborhood.

She and partner Durham also put their days and nights into Garden Valley and Ridgeway built its food pantry into the region’s largest food bank. Before the pandemic, she was giving produce, meat, bread, cereal, and other food to more than 30,000 people per month.

She also served about 1,500 people per month in about 50 other programs, from dance to family literacy classes to HIV testing. She staged shows, holiday parties, camps, and senior proms for senior citizens. She created an African drum troupe that played in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. She created a garden whose produce won prizes at the Cuyahoga County Fair.

Ridgway hosted a nationwide conference on HIV and AIDS, and also campaigned door to door against those scourges.

“I can’t tell you what we haven’t done, she says.”

Ridgeway built a corps of about 150 volunteers. She organized a yearly fundraiser for Garden Valley called Hike for Hope. She delivered food to shut-ins in the evenings. She ordered supplies and tackled paperwork in the middle of the night.

She has scrounged up school uniforms, job interview clothes, beds, stoves, and other necessities for clients. One year, after she handed out turkeys for Christmas, volunteers insisted that she take the last one home. Then a woman came in on two canes who was raising 13 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. So, of course, Ridgeway gave her that turkey.

Durham, a contractor, repaired and maintained Garden Valley Neighborhood House’s 20,903 square feet. He once went there in the wee hours several nights in a row to switch generators. Another time, the couple went without electricity at home for a few days while paying to keep Garden Valley’s electricity on.

“When we have things cut off at home, it affects only us,” says Ridgeway. When Garden Valley goes dark, “it affects the whole community.”

Ridgeway helped persuade the Ohio Department of Transportation to hire more residents of Garden Valley’s Kinsman neighborhood for the Opportunity Corridor project. Then Ridgeway saw them standing idle at the project. The new hires said that their colleagues wouldn’t train them for fear of competition in the trades.

So, Durham moved his construction school to Garden Valley, trained students to repair the sprawling complex, and helped more than 200 of those students get construction jobs—often on major projects.

Whatever it takes
The Kinsman area needs all the help it can get and more. It's Cleveland’s third poorest neighborhood, according to the Center for Community Solutions. Its median household income is $18,046, barely one-fourth of the national average.

Garden Valley Neighborhood House food pantryNeighborhood House serves more than Garden Valley and Kinsman. “We feed whoever comes to the door,” Ridgeway says, adding that clients have come to the pantry from as far as Solon—embarrassed to seek food closer to home.

Ridgeway, 73, was raised in the rural town of Pelham, Georgia. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and African American studies at Albany State University in Georgia, with some credits from Harvard and Yale. Then she got a master’s diploma in library research at Emory University in Atlanta. The adventurous woman moved to Alaska the next day and stayed there for 16 years. She worked in libraries there, consulted for them, and managed the construction of a $43 million library.

In 1987, Durham asked Ridgeway, a childhood acquaintance, to join his construction business in Cleveland, where he built, demolished, and renovated several hundred buildings. She learned basic tasks like cement work and helped oversee his projects.

Soon she became a librarian again. She led Cuyahoga County Public Library’s Beachwood branch. She helped Cleveland Heights Public Library leader Steve Wood raise a controversial walkway over Lee Road.

“He loved controversy,” Ridgeway says, “and actually he was pretty good at it.”

She led Cleveland Public Library (CPL) outreach programs and revived its bookmobile service. She brought acclaimed authors such as Nikki Giovanni and Faith Ringgold to library’s main branch.

She also oversaw many CPL branches, including a tiny satellite in the Garden Valley Neighborhood House basement. She labeled shelves there as “Adult,” “Reference,” and so on. Today the labels remain, but the books have been replaced with canned beans and other non-perishables.

Back when Ridgeway was managing the library branches, the struggling Garden Valley Neighborhood House often lost power, water, or gas. The library board wanted to close that branch. Instead, Ridgeway won permission in 2008 to move it a new building across Kinsman Road.

Without its only paying tenant, the neighborhood house closed, and the building kept deteriorating. “Windows had been broken. Water was standing on the floor. The doors were not secure,” Ridgeway recalls.

But she developed a plan for Garden Valley Neighborhood House to reopen and presented it to library trustees at a meeting. The trustees asked her to leave the room awhile. She returned to learn that she’d been named Garden Valley Neighborhood House’s president.

In 2010, she retired from the library, reopened Neighborhood House, and became its unpaid interim director. Her duties were supposed to be very part-time. “I thought I could do that,” she says. “One day a week? Sure.” She quickly learned that “there’s no end to this work.”

Over the years, Ridgeway raised funds for Neighborhood House from the Hunger Network, Presbytery of the Western Reserve, John Knox Church, Church of the Covenant, New Community Bible Fellowship, the Jewish Community Federation, Neighborhood Connections, United Black Fund, and other groups.

The Greater Cleveland Food Bank named Garden Valley as one of its 10 resource centers for the Neighborhood House’s broad range of services. The reward included a walk-in refrigerator.

Eaton Corp. once offered to send 90 workers to help repair Garden Valley Neighborhood House if Ridgeway could send $1,000 for materials by a certain date. She didn’t have the money, so she played the lottery and won $2,600.

Looking to the future
This summer, Garden Valley installed a $34,000 solar power system with help from Black Environmental Leaders, RE-volv, the Sierra Club, and others. The panels should save Garden Valley $64,000 worth of electricity over the next five years.

But Ridgeway has struggled for funds from governments. They seem to prefer organizations with broader support. “I’ve never had an audit,” she says. “I couldn’t audit my own money.”

One day in 2017, Ridgeway collapsed at the pantry. She was diagnosed with cancer. Then Durham was diagnosed with cancer too. The pair sometimes got treatments at the same facility at the same time. Now Ridgeway is in remission but still taking oral chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, the pandemic shut down most of Neighborhood House’s programs. Now the pantry distributes food at curbside and at about 130 homes, with help from police in Cleveland and Shaker Heights.

The pantry is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. It serves people who report household incomes of no more than double the Federal poverty standard. Each client may come any day for produce and every one-and-a-half weeks for non-perishable food.

Ridgeway says she hopes to see the building and its programs reopen next year. She’s also talking to a couple of contractors about resuming the construction classes that Durham once taught. But first Garden Valley Neighborhood House needs a new boiler, new elevator, and new leaders.

Meanwhile, she says, “I’m ready to do something different. I’m ready to do short-term projects.” For one, Ridgway is leading a campaign for a postage stamp honoring Karamu House, the nation’s oldest producing African American theater. For another, Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb has asked City Council to put Ridgeway on the new Community Police Commission.

Ridgeway lives near University Circle in an early 20th century house that she and Durham restored. She walks a few miles per day. She reads a couple hundred books a year from many different genres—often while curled up on her porch swing under a blanket.

She also spends time with her daughter, Leah Ridgeway Jackson, an engineer teaching at Hathaway Brown school, and two grandchildren.

The Plain Dealer named Ridgeway as one of its community heroes. But she has mixed feelings about her achievements.

“I was very idealistic,” she says. “I thought I could get rid of the food bank line. I realize now there’ll probably be a line long after I’ve left the world.

As for Garden Valley overall, “I don’t know how much of an impact we have had on the community. I would say we have made a difference in individual lives.”

Read more articles by Grant Segall.

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years at daily papers, mostly The Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Oxford University Press, Time, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets.