fbpx vie magazine subscribe button

Desire Street Ministries Help Locals Reinvent Left-Behind Communities

By Tori Phelps | Photography courtesy of Desire Street Ministries

Its name is inextricably linked with Tennessee Williams’s landmark A Streetcar Named Desire, but New Orleans’ Desire neighborhood has long existed within a shroud of poverty and crime, rather than the veil of romance conferred by the play’s fame.

To many, a Bible study may not seem like an adequate anecdote. But when Mo and Ellen Leverett launched Desire Street Ministries in 1990, they did it with youth outreach, whole-family encouragement resources, and, yes, a Bible study. They went on to plant a church and establish a medical clinic, and, for a time, they even ran a private boys’ school. From the beginning, Desire Street Ministries was about community transformation by and for the people of that community. To effect real change, they believed, neighbors with a stake in that change must be the navigators.

Wuerffel and Oscar Brown walking
Wuerffel and Oscar Brown, who received help from Desire Street Ministries as a youth and now is one of its ministry partners, leading Desire Fellowship in New Orleans

Then came Hurricane Katrina. Like most of the city, Desire Street Ministries was devastated by the 2005 storm, leaving little choice but to evacuate. Operations temporarily relocated to Florida in the immediate aftermath and then, hoping to increase the organization’s reach, made a permanent move to Atlanta in 2009. Its executive director, Danny Wuerffel, made a move from New Orleans to Atlanta, too. While New Orleans had become his home, Desire Street had become his life’s work.

Uprooting himself wasn’t anything new to Wuerffel, who had lived everywhere from Nebraska to Spain as a child, thanks to his dad’s Air Force career. He started playing football in junior high, and a combination of passion and talent led to a quarterback position on the University of Florida’s 1996 National Championship team, the Heisman Trophy, and a seven-year career in the NFL.

Wuerffel presents Drue Tranquill with the 2018 Wuerffel Trophy
Wuerffel presents Drue Tranquill with the 2018 Wuerffel Trophy, awarded to the Football Bowl Subdivision player who best exhibits exemplary community service, at the All Sports Association’s annual banquet in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

He was drafted by the New Orleans Saints and, during his rookie year, began volunteering with Desire Street Ministries. In his naivete, Wuerffel was shocked by what he saw. Admitting that he had considered poverty something that existed primarily in other countries, it seemed unthinkable to find such destitution so close to the arena where he played professional football. Far from being put off, however, he devoted as much time as he could to the organization; and as the years went on, he felt a pull to do even more. “Every day, I would drive down a road in New Orleans, and I could turn right to train for football or turn left to Desire Street,” he recounts. “Every day, it got harder to turn right.”

It was no surprise when he officially joined the Desire Street staff upon his retirement from the NFL in 2004. As executive director, he’s been able to devote himself full-time to a cause in which he believes wholeheartedly. Among the perks of the position, he says, is the opportunity to tell the broader world about what’s happening in the neighborhoods where Desire Street Ministries has formed partnerships. And what’s happening is good.

Oscar “O” Brown, Wuerffel, and some of the kids from Desire Street’s partner community in New Orleans

The organization still believes that the people already invested in under-resourced neighborhoods know far more about how to help than well-intentioned outsiders, which is why Desire Street’s model is to support boots-on-the-ground organizations. “We found that there are so many great nonprofits, but the leaders don’t have the support or resources to be as effective as they could be,” he explains. “So rather than replace those (groups) and try to do something different, we help them become more sustainable and thrive in what they do so their impact is greater.”

A recent two-day training for more than a dozen leaders from across the Southeast is a good example of that model. During these retreats and on a daily basis, Desire Street offers coaching, help nonprofits develop their boards of directors, and provides spiritual and emotional care for those who are constantly caring for others—serving as what Wuerffel calls “life support” for leaders in the trenches.

Each year, UF and UGA football greats support Desire Street Ministries at the Desire Cup golf tournament, auction, and gala.

Desire Street partners with local organizations involved in everything from housing to healthcare to early childhood development for three to five years each. Currently, they have twelve partners, with a near-term goal of developing twenty sustainable organizations by 2025. The ultimate goal is a little more ambitious: creating neighborhoods where kids can play safely and grow up to have the same kinds of opportunities Wuerffel took for granted. “We want every neighborhood to be a desirable place to live,” he says.

He sees progress in that direction, but setbacks are part and parcel of such work. When pain visits a neighborhood and there’s nothing to do but lend a shoulder, when leaders are struggling, or when he attends the funeral of a child from one of the neighborhoods, it’s not a good day. What keeps him committed through the valleys are the peaks, like witnessing the physical transformation of a neighborhood as it’s being revitalized and seeing young people who are beating the odds every day.

The ultimate goal is a little more ambitious: creating neighborhoods where kids can play safely and grow up to have the same kinds of opportunities Wuerffel took for granted.

Wuerffel’s decades-long association with Desire Street means he’s been around long enough to have seen many of those stories firsthand. Perhaps his favorite took place at a University of Florida-LSU football game when an important play didn’t go the Gators’ way. There was only one person on the University of Florida sidelines cheering like crazy: Wuerffel. He wasn’t clapping for the play but the player. Other Gators fans saw LSU tight end DeAngelo Peterson as a hindrance to a win; Wuerffel saw a kid from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward—a kid whom statistics predicted would be dead or in jail by age twenty-five. But Peterson’s association with Desire Street as a youth set in motion opportunities that included a scholarship to LSU and a stint in the NFL.

Whether it’s a picture of kids picking out library books, sent from a father who learned to love reading through Desire Street and now inspires his children, or the countless leaders on the verge of burnout who rebound with new purpose after receiving support from Desire Street, the organization’s influence is both tangible and far-reaching. And as Wuerffel’s eyes once were opened to the plight of people in his own city, he now does the same for prospective donors and volunteers, most of whom clamor to become part of Desire Street Ministries’ mission. “Seeing people come alongside us, whether they’re donating time or expertise, is such a joy,” he says. “I get to be that bridge to bring people into the work.”

Wuerffel on SportsCenter
Wuerffel on SportsCenter promoting the 2015 SEC Storied documentary short film, Wuerffel’s Way, which highlighted his post-football life as the leader of Desire Street Ministries

Until every child, no matter where they’re raised, is assured of safety and opportunity, Wuerffel will continue spreading the message of Desire Street—encouraging people to see not only what is, but what could be.

— V —

For more information, visit DesireStreet.org.

Read Responsibly

VIE Magazine - The Art & Design Issue November 2021
VIE Magazine January 2021 Special Commemorative Edition
VIE Magazine September 2020 Wanderlust Issue, Fancy Camps, The Idea Boutique
VIE Magazine August 2020 Art & Culture Issue, Nathan Alan Yoakum Art
VIE Magazine - Architecture & Design Issue - July 2020
VIE Magazine - Decor and Home Issue - June 2020
VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail