Picture of Jennie Groff
Throughout our county, multi-colored signs have been popping up all over, proclaiming first in Spanish, then in English, and finally in Arabic: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” The signs make me smile and warm my heart. They make me proud to say that Lancaster County—which is ethnically rich, not only in diversity of its people, but also a sincere appreciation for the diversity—is my home. But, I am also cognizant that well-meaning signs, safety pins worn on backpacks and lapels, and multi-colored flags are meaningless unless actions are taken to back up the ideas. If there was ever a time for walking the talk, this is it.
Jennie Groff and her husband, Jonathan (not to be confused with local celebrity, Jonathan Groff, a Broadway and Hollywood actor) are walking the talk. It all began in 1999, with the purchase of a dilapidated building on Manor Street. Jonathan named the home “Petra,” which means rock. It was idealistically refurbished with the goal of helping neighbors rebuild and rediscover the concepts of community and God’s love.
From the house came a love story between Jennie and Jonathan, an investment of time and money within the southwest quadrant of the city, and a successful social entrepreneurship. Jonathan, a Millersville University music graduate, craftsman, and wise investor, purchased and refurbished several multi-unit properties. At about the same time the units became available, refugees from around the world, sponsored by the generous religious organizations in the area, came to Lancaster looking for new homes. They found those homes in the Groff’s units. These refugees found a community that wanted to help them acclimate, but at the heart of all successful assimilations into a new country is the ability to work and care for your family. These refugees had found homes, but they also needed jobs.
In 2008, Jennie and Jonathan worked to establish a new business, one that could sell a product (they decided on Stroopies, a European delicacy that looks like a chocolate-filled waffle cookie) with the hopes of providing employment to the highly skilled refugees renting their apartments. Jennie admits that even with neither she nor Jonathan taking a salary, the business lost money that year. In 2009, they broke even, and today, they have a brick-and-mortar store, seven employees, and a business that looks to be expanding on such a successful scale that Jennie has been asked to speak at social entrepreneur conferences around the world. Plans are even in the works for a redesign of machinery that will allow for greater production.
Success has been a slow process, and the business has certainly not been an overnight success. Jennie admits that her four children, ranging in age from 9 to 15-years-old, have become a part of the adventure, chipping in when and where they can and it is age appropriate. Jennie shares that the crunch of being all things to all people—a wife, mother, manager, and business owner—can be draining, but that she is lucky enough to have strong and extended familial support system. She also cannot sing her husband’s praises enough.
More than anything else, she prays to always have “room for grace.” It is in interviewing her that I begin to realize how strong a role faith plays in this woman’s life. Where I may ask for a moment to chill, or a little time for mom, Jennie expresses this need as grace.
While we were sharing our lunch, I had to admit that I did not fully grasp the depth of the word “grace.” I mulled on the word and idea that ”Jennie asks for grace.” I explored how just the use of this particular word perhaps gave her a depth of unique skills, ones I did not fully grasp, nor up until this moment, fully appreciate. How was Jennie asking for grace helping her juggle what seemed like the impossible, and appearing to succeed at all of those highly demanding jobs? I asked friends and family to define the word, looked it up in a dictionary, and after many days, I realized that Jennie’s use of grace, as in God’s forgiveness, gave her an enviable strength and confidence. I have met many people, but I have met very few like Jennie Groff, who embodies the ideals many talk about. Unlike others, she and her family are walking the talk. They are caring for neighbors and friends, providing jobs and worth to those who have lost so much, raising children to be smart and kind (without sacrificing one for the other) and wanting to reinvest in the community in which they live.
Every now and then, I walk into an interview believing that I am going to share the good works or cool ideas of someone, and instead a single idea, word, or action permeates the interview and washes over our time together, making it difficult to write the story I had once planned to write.
Grace was that word. But, it is also the quote Jennie left me with before she retuned to the demands of her day: “Don’t despise small beginnings. It’s like the story of the little boy who had fish and bread. Jesus touched that bread and then there was enough to feed 5,000 people. God has given, in our hands, what we need. We think too hard.”