Tim and Joani Essenburg were young professionals in 1990 when they moved into the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis, a place known then for drugs, gangs and grinding poverty -- not the middle-class good life.

But they had a plan. The college professor and former kindergarten teacher set forth to build community among wary neighbors. It started slowly, with Joani Essenburg baking cookies and giving them to neighbors, with turning their home into a social hub for kids. 

Twenty years later, their "Banyan community" has won recognition for its unique way of strengthening a fragile neighborhood. The Essenburgs have launched after-school programs, tutoring and mentoring programs, block clubs, a community council, and a web of personal connections among neighbors.

They're now bursting out of the space they rent in the former Oliver Presbyterian church and have a waiting list of more than 100 children who want to belong. 

"Everyone is trying to figure out this model," said Joani Essenburg, 48, who has worked with hundreds of children and families over the years. "It's not like we're trying to keep it a secret. It's just hard to describe it."

Other middle-class families have moved into troubled neighborhoods to try to make a difference. But the Essenburgs have had a remarkable impact by focusing on an area of roughly 10 square blocks and concocting their own community-development model.

"I can't recall anything quite like this," said Randi Roth, executive director of the Otto Bremer Foundation, which funds the group. "You can't help but wonder whether it should become a national model. But then again, is it the program or the personalities behind it?"

Tim Essenburg describes it as a "Christian community-development model." Rather than invest in bricks and mortar -- or handouts -- the Essenburgs say they invest in people. They build local leadership, educate the next generation, and promote group problem-solving for community concerns. They get funds from individuals, churches and foundations, but the work is a labor of love.

"It's not a job, it's a lifestyle,'' said Tim Essenburg, an economics professor at Bethel University.

'I trust her. Why not?'

Khoua Vang was among the early Phillips residents to notice the Essenburgs were no ordinary neighbors. She and her husband, Dang Xiong, had moved into a house in 1995 and were having problems with a neighbor. They didn't know what to do. When Joani Essenburg learned of the problem, she organized a block club meeting and eventually negotiated a settlement.

Not long after, Essenburg knocked on Vang's door and asked whether her daughter would like to join a "Kids' Club" starting in her basement -- a club that now occupies nearly an entire church. Essenburg said the kids would get school supplies, activities, some Bible study. Vang thought, "I trust her. Why not?"

Over the next 15 years, Vang's five children enrolled in after-school and tutoring programs run by Essenburg. But this wasn't ordinary tutoring. The Banyan tutors monitored assignments on the parent portals, prepared the students for state standardized tests, and later for college entrance exams.

Joani Essenburg also found Vang an English language class, taught her how to work with local schools, encouraged her to send her children "to the highest-performing schools," and then found scholarship money to make that happen.

"Our whole strategy is to get them to graduate from high school," explained Essenburg, who has developed a relationship with the Catholic high school in Minneapolis, DeLaSalle, so her students can attend there.

Meanwhile, Vang was encouraged to pay it forward. She is a member of a leadership council that discusses community concerns and ways to address them. Said Vang: "We're all family.''

The connections that Vang made in her community reflect the reason the project is called "Banyan Community.'' The Banyan is a tree native to India whose branches send down roots to the ground below, creating an ever-growing canopy. In the same way, as each person in the neighborhood puts down roots, the Banyan Community grows.

Tough beginning

The timing for the Banyan experiment couldn't have been more challenging. The Phillips neighborhood in the 1990s was wracked by gang violence, drive-by shootings, crack houses and prostitution.

"When we moved in, we were scared to death," said Joani Essenburg, who had moved to Minnesota from Tennessee with her husband the year before.

"The garage next door was smoking because it was burned down the night before. The house next door was run by the Crips [gang]. Every night when the bars closed, there was either bullets or yelling."

The street corner where her kids waited for the school bus was a base for prostitutes and drug dealers.

"I would go ahead of the kids and ask them to leave," said Essenburg.

Naomi Mohammed, who grew up in the neighborhood, said having a family with the time, energy and smarts to tackle the problems made a huge difference. Most families were just working hard to make ends meet, she said.

"She came at a good time," said Mohammed, who works at the local hardware store. "They've been a real unifying factor."

Mohammed, a single parent, sent all five of her children to Banyan programs. Like Vang, she credits the organization with providing a safe and stimulating haven for kids.

This spring, Mohammed has three graduations to show for it. Her daughter Emelie is graduating from St. Catherine University. Daughter Abby is graduating from high school and heading to St. Catherine. And Naomi, 53, will accept her long-pursued diploma from St. Catherine University, too.

Last week about 200 parents and children packed Banyan's spring carnival, which featured awards for the high school graduates who were accepted to colleges including Yale and Marquette University.

There was face painting, a cakewalk, a balloon maker, a huge inflatable trampoline, free dinner. Throughout, the Essenburgs talked and joked with this diverse community of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and all things in between.

"We didn't really come in planning to do all this," said Joani Essenburg. "But it's the Essenburg family living out its call to love God and love our neighbor."

"Now I feel like I live in Edina," she added with a laugh. "It's very different from when we moved in. Banyan isn't responsible for all of it. But I like to think we had a real impact."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511