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Thriving community organization grew from Furman roots

Dan Weidenbenner ’11

Last updated November 2, 2023

By Furman News

For more than a decade, Mill Village Ministries has connected the Greenville, South Carolina, community with its nonprofit enterprises, providing food, transportation, entrepreneurial and social justice resources to hundreds of residents.

It all sprouted from a few seeds planted by founder and executive director Dan Weidenbenner ’11, enriched along the way by his student experiences and the Furman family.

“Being at Furman really helped me get plugged in to the Greenville community,” he said. “A lot of our original support has come from alums, and it still does to this day.”

Plugging in to community

Dan Weidenbenner ’11 (center) and other members of the Mill Village Ministries team at the groundbreaking ceremony for the organization’s future headquarters in the Village of West Greenville.

A native of south Florida, Weidenbenner was attracted by Furman’s reputation.

“I knew the psychology department was really good,” he said. “I met some of the faculty when I toured campus, and I had a good advisor back in Florida who told me all about it.”

He served as a resident assistant for Furman’s Engaged Living First-Year Experience community, earned a fellowship with the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability (now known as The Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities) and worked on the Furman Farm.

Weidenbenner began finding ways to connect the campus to his new hometown. In downtown Greenville, he volunteered at the Scott Towers public housing development for low-income seniors. As part of a Furman research project on improving seniors’ cognitive abilities, he helped build community gardens at Scott Towers and at The Woodlands at Furman.

In April 2011, he helped organize a flash mob that brought more than 200 students to Falls Park downtown for a group dance to CeeLo Green’s “Forget You.” The viral video got nearly 90,000 views within three months.

Building relationships and trust

After a post-graduation church mission trip in the Lowcountry, Weidenbenner returned to Greenville, moving into Greater Sullivan, a predominantly Black neighborhood formerly surrounded by textile mills. Many of his neighbors were living below the poverty line in what had become an under-resourced food desert.

Drawing on his Furman community gardening experiences, Weidenbenner sowed the seeds of Mill Village Farms in 2012, turning a patch of land at Long Branch Baptist Church into the Sullivan Street Garden with the help of dozens of neighborhood volunteers.

“I built a lot of relationships and trust, which frankly took a lot of time for someone not from this community,” he said. “I became passionate about building cross-cultural relationships and building bridges.”

The garden now includes 30 beds, a greenhouse and a commercial kitchen. At-risk youth work as volunteers and apprentices, and a food share program distributes produce throughout Greenville.

Other organizations have since come into being under the Mill Village Ministries umbrella. In 2013, Weidenbenner launched Village Wrench to provide free bicycle repair and encourage sustainable transportation in Greenville. Village Launch, founded in 2014, provides training, mentoring and other resources to local entrepreneurs. Village Engage joined the collective in 2019 to involve people of faith in social justice and equity issues.

His work has gotten wide notice. The Upstate Business Journal selected Weidenbenner for its 2015 Who’s Who honors. In 2021, Mill Village Ministries won a Community Spirit Award presented by the Community Foundation of Greenville and TOWN Magazine. Earlier this year, the Motley Fool Foundation inducted Weidenbenner into its Financial Freedom Rule Breakers.

All of the Mill Village Ministries enterprises will soon come together in a 14,000-square-foot space in the Village of West Greenville.

‘Early seeds’

Throughout its growth, the organization has kept close ties to the founder’s alma mater, providing opportunities for student interns and researchers and partnering with Furman’s institutes.

Village Launch often collaborates with The Hill Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and “many of The Shi Institute Student Fellows come work with us,” Weidenbenner said. “I always love telling them my story, because the early seeds of the ministries came from me doing that.”

The social entrepreneur is now working with Judith Williams, an assistant professor of anthropology, on a research project supporting minority- and women-owned businesses. Weidenbenner also frequently visits sustainability and psychology classes.

“In a lot of ways, my job is solving problems,” said Weidenbenner, who still lives in Greater Sullivan with his wife and two daughters. “The skills of critical thinking, being able to analyze problems and test solutions and then communicating those solutions are things I’ve kept with me from Furman.”

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