Building community and lives
JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff Wes Devney installs water-heated convection tubing for radiant heating while Dave Brady seals a window at a new house built by Koinonia Construction on South 32nd Street. Below, Boys from Riverside Middle School play basketball at the former Garfield School while Dave Hagstrom keeps score. The gym is used primarily by City Parks and Recreation Department leagues. Community Leadership Development Inc. came up with $5,000 to keep the heat on in the former school while looking for feasible community uses for the building.

David Hagstrom links building houses, being a landlord and running a laundromat to loving God and his neighbors.

As the force behind Community Leadership Development Inc., Hagstrom marshaled a group of like-minded Christians more than 20 years ago to quietly work to make a difference on Billings' South Side. The emphasis is on relationships rather than programs, based on the belief that friendships, rather than institutions, change people.

Hagstrom bristles at the "do-gooder" label and dislikes being pigeonholed.

"We've been working in the neighborhood here for 20 years. If it's good or not, you decide," he said.

The projects have shifted over the years, but CLDI's underlying goal has remained constant.

"The only thing I feel led to do is to love my neighbor as myself," said Hagstrom, a lean and energetic 46-year-old.

About CLDI Community Leadership Development Inc., a nonprofit organization, undertakes a range of projects on the South Side in the name of Christ.

The organization has five full-time staff members and a construction crew of four. Another 12 to 15 individuals in the neighborhood volunteer regularly at the laundromat or with the construction company.

About half of the nonprofit group's budget comes from contributions, while the other half comes from rental income and fees for services. The largest single grants have come from the Murdock Trust and First Interstate Bank Foundation.

In October, CLDI had its first fund-raising event in 20 years, a recognition of the organization's growing financial commitments and its need to expand its base of support. Although CLDI cooperates with four or five Billings church congregations in various projects, it has no direct ties to them.

During the last decade, CLDI has built or renovated more than 50 housing units in the neighborhood, turning blighted or vacant properties into affordable rentals, while providing on-the-job training to construction crews.

This fall, the organization stepped forward with $5,000 to keep the heat turned on in the former Garfield School building while exploring ways the community might use the facility.

The organization has also proposed building a subdivision of low-cost single-family houses and duplexes on 20 acres west of Orchard Elementary School, putting up six to eight new units each year. As part of the proposed development, Chrysalis Acres, CLDI has offered to sell five acres to the school district to permit the possible future expansion of Orchard Elementary.

St. Vincent Healthcare, through the hospital's mission fund, gave $250,000 to CLDI to buy land for the subdivision. The project, which is in the zoning process, will require $1.2 million to complete the infrastructure of roads, sewer and water hook-ups, about $700,000 of which has already been raised.

Many longtime Billings residents first heard of CLDI during the mid-1980s, when the group launched the Koinonia Mexican restaurant in a boarded-up grocery store across from South Park.

The restaurant's name came from the Greek word for fellowship, the same name used for CLDI's construction company and laundromat. Volunteer waiters and waitresses were drawn from several Bible-study groups, and their tips went to fund rural schools in India.

The restaurant, which closed in 1995, was home base for a street ministry, building relationships with neighborhood youths.

Some neighborhood residents were suspicious of Hagstrom's motives.

At first, Marion Dozier, who has been active in neighborhood issues for several decades, suspected that Hagstrom's plan was a scheme to convert the grocery-store property into a different commercial use.

"I just had to change my mind 100 percent," Dozier said. "He was just going to do exactly what he said he was going to do."

Jess Briceno, who became part of the Koinonia fellowship, senses that some Hispanics regard Hagstrom suspiciously because he represents the dominant Anglo culture, but Briceno has seen the positive influence that CLDI has had in some people's lives.

Briceno has his master's degree in rehabilitation counseling and works as a treatment manager for In-Care Network, a program for Native American foster children. Briceno was an alcoholic and chemically dependent when he met Hagstrom, who is married to Briceno's first cousin.

"I avoided anything that had anything to do with spirituality," said Briceno, who described the way his life changed direction in 1989 while he was in the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.

"After 25 years of alcohol and drug abuse, I was sick and tired of suffering so much, so I asked God to change my life, Briceno said.

On the day he left the detention center, Briceno ran into Hagstrom, who invited him to a Monday-night Bible study.

"I went from carrying a gun and peddling cocaine on a Friday night to putting away my gun and taking a Bible to Bible study that Monday night," Briceno said.

Through the Koinonia fellowship, Briceno met other Christians.

"They showed me what other people talked about. They showed me they cared," he said.

Briceno said Hagstrom helped him gain knowledge of God's word.

"The most important gift that people have to share with less-fortunate people is Christian brotherhood," Briceno said. "You have to reach out and actually show them Christ's brotherly love. If what you want is to change our world, that works."

A commitment to outreach ministries runs deep within Hagstrom's family.

Hagstrom's grandfather ran a mission shelter in Youngstown, Ohio. His parents, Dr. Robert and Evelyn Hagstrom, have been active in outreach efforts locally and in Latin America since they moved to Billings in 1954.

Robert Hagstrom, a retired urologist, organized numerous drives to collect used medical equipment to donate to clinics in Honduras and other Latin American countries.

"We never went on family vacations. We went places to help people," Hagstrom said.

In the sixth grade, Hagstrom spent a week on a medical mission to a remote Indian village in Central Mexico, where he held a flashlight as a spotlight for a dentist. He remembers the toothless grin of one man who returned pain-free for the first time in years after the dentist removed a mouthful of painfully abscessed teeth.

In 1973, while still in high school, Hagstrom was one of the leaders of a newly formed Young Life Club at Riverside. Young Life, a non-denominational Christian youth ministry, attempts through friendship evangelism to reach out to students and encourage them to enter into a personal relationship with Christ.

Many of the individuals who were active in the Koinonia fellowship were Young Life leaders, said Scott Lynch, who was co-director at one time of a CLDI house, a fraternity-style home in which young men learned about discipleship.

By 1977, Hagstrom was taking troubled young men into his own home and mentoring young men at a group home set up on Lewis Avenue.

In 1979, Hagstrom and the youths he befriended, turned a garage into a weight room and place to hang out. The weight room was first located in a garage beside the original Stella's bakery on North 25th Street. After the Koinonia Restaurant opened in 1983, a portion of the building became a game room and weight room.

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Hagstrom and his wife, Cindy, were married in 1980. A year later, they moved to the South Side, where they have raised their four children. A couple of dozen like-minded singles and couples, who were involved in the Koinonia restaurant and ministry, also moved to rental houses on the South Side.

CLDI volunteers immersed themselves in the neighborhood, working as study aides in classrooms and playground monitors at Garfield School.

"Our awareness of how many kids bailed out of school between seventh and 12th grade started Garfield to College, a student-empowerment effort," Hagstrom said.

The mentoring program, which CLDI ran for 10 years, attempted to improve the high-school-graduation rates of Garfield students.

In the mid-1990s, CLDI's focus shifted toward providing affordable housing.

The first house renovation was a "junker" donated in 1985. CLDI borrowed $30,000 to rehab it into a four-bedroom home for women who worked as restaurant volunteers.

In 1993, CLDI started rehabbing four to six blighted housing units each year. Koinonia Housing Construction hires men and women from the neighborhood for its construction crew, providing them with job skills. The rents are pegged at about $100 below the going market price.

"If it's just a junker and nobody else can, or will, do something with it, we will," Hagstrom said.

Sometimes, the effort spurs other landlords and property owners to fix up their houses.

"If in a blighted block you can do a quality rehab, it ignites a little bit of enthusiasm," Hagstrom said. His own office is in a remodeled building in an alley off South 32nd Street.


Carmen Berumen, who leads the four-man construction crew, tries to keep two projects going at a time. In early February, the crew was framing the interior of a new house on South 32nd Street, doing the trim on a new duplex across the street, and tackling an extensive renovation. The crew started building a couple of duplexes a year in the spring of 2000 as part of the Isaiah Project.

"Our vision has been to hire people down in the neighborhood," said Berumen, who has worked for Koinonia Construction for five years.

The proposed Chrysalis subdivision has the potential to hire more workers and expand the scope of CLDI's efforts from building housing units to creating a subdivision. The subdivision would create a mixed-income neighborhood, a combination of rental units and single family homes aimed at first-time home buyers.

CLDI provides more than just low-cost rental units, Lynch said. Tenants find a landlord who will "walk with them" as they learn to manage their finances, he said.

"I've seen families over the years go from instability to stability," Lynch said. "I've seen people with no hope, gain hope."

Lynch describes Hagstrom as a visionary who is oblivious to obstacles. Briceno says Hagstrom tends to expect more good things to happen than probably have, yet he continues to persevere.

"I couldn't, on my own strength, continue to care in an environment where others didn't care," Hagstrom said. "I serve a God that says 'give a damn and don't stop.' " Donna Healy may be reached at 657-1292 or dhealy@billingsgazette.com.