A Life Filled with Grace
ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
Rhonda Grace has a simple message for everyone she meets: “Love God, love others, and love yourself!” Hers has not always been an easy life, but one thing has seen her through it all – her steadfast faith. That faith has led her down many paths in her life’s journey, but in retrospect each of those paths was preparing her for one special moment. That moment was when she started Grace Place Ministries – Ordinary People Serving an Extraordinary God with hardly more than a hope and a prayer. Today that ministry is one of the most impactful in our community. For her tireless work helping others, lifting them up when others had given up, Rhonda Grace is our January BayouIcon.
Rhonda Grace readily admits that she had the most wonderful parents – parents who loved their children with unconditional love. They provided Rhonda and her two sisters with a safe and secure home that included a strong religious foundation. “Both of our parents taught Sunday School at the Methodist church in El Dorado, Arkansas, where we were all faithful members,” Rhonda recalls.
Parental Influence and Family Love
Rhonda’s parents met on a blind date at a football game in Little Rock. It was an important chance meeting as the two of them fell in love and were happily married for over 50 years. Rhonda describes their marriage as a “wonderful example of a Godly marriage.”
Her father, Kermit Cottrell, was born in El Dorado, and her mother, Bernice Andreas Cottrell, was born in Brenham, Texas. Her dad had a very successful career with the Bell South Telephone Company for 40 years, and Rhonda’s mom was a stay-at-home mom who was a wonderful homemaker. She canned, cooked, and kept an immaculate house, according to Rhonda. “She made all of our clothes and doll clothes, as well!” Rhonda says. “She always had some kind of homemade cookies or pastries for us when we got home from school.”
Their parents taught their three girls important life lessons as they were growing up in their country home located 8 miles out of El Dorado. Rhonda remembers her parents sharing fresh vegetables from her father’s garden and some of his catch of catfish with a needy family on several occasions. She also remembers her paternal grandmother recounting stories of the Depression when needy families would come to her door for something to eat. Her maternal grandparents in Texas had a large farm and also shared with those in need. “They were all great examples to me of Christian charity in action while I was growing up,” Rhonda says.
Rhonda’s paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived only a few miles away. Sunday afternoons were for making homemade ice cream with relatives coming by to visit. Because her maternal grandparents and relatives lived in Texas, Rhonda didn’t see them often. Each summer, however, she and her sisters would spend a week with them. “Those were memorable days on their farm,” she recalls. “Grandpa had beehives, and eating that honeycomb was the best!”
learly Rhonda loved the country life. She enjoyed going fishing with her father (there are countless family stories about her ability to tangle a fishing line), walking behind him when he plowed the garden, swinging on the old tire swing, and playing in her tree house. She enjoyed selecting a watermelon from her father’s garden and then having the neighborhood kids come to share it. “There were times when I did play with my baby dolls and cooking sets,” she says, “but being outdoors was where I was at my best.”
An early and lifelong influence on Rhonda was her parents showing her that they honored the Lord above all else. She remembers sitting at the breakfast table as a child, listening to her parents read from the devotional Upper Room. When she and her sisters got older, they had their own devotions. Other lessons learned from her parents were about integrity and doing a job well, and respecting one’s parents and respecting others. “I have strived to live my life as my parents reared me. Their ethics and example have guided me in business and in ministry throughout my life. I am so very grateful for them!” she says.
Education – Secular and Religious
Rhonda learned the importance of work at an early age. She earned 25 cents a week if she did her part of the chores. When she mowed grass, she got extra. She babysat often, and made some arts and crafts pieces which she sold to relatives. Her first “real job” was working after school and on Saturdays at a hardware store. One summer she delivered flowers for a florist. “Those jobs taught me the value of working hard, saving my money, and pleasing the boss,” she says. “I also got a glimpse of what being out in the work force meant, and how to work with many different kinds of customers – some easy to please, and some difficult.”
Rhonda enjoyed her years in the El Dorado school system. Even now she maintains contact with many of her classmates and friends from her high school days. After graduation, she attended Louisiana Tech University for 2 years, majoring in interior design. Truth be told, all she ever really wanted to be was a wife and mother. She met her future husband at LaTech. When they married, they began a nursery/garden center and landscaping business which Rhonda operated for 18 years until the marriage ended. Together they had two beautiful daughters. Today Rhonda cherishes her family – her daughters, sons-in-law, two grandsons, three granddaughters, three great-grandsons, and her first great-granddaughter expected to be born in April.
Among the religious influences that Rhonda came under while growing up were those of Billy Graham and David Wilkerson. When she was in junior high and high school, Graham’s televised crusades impacted her. When she was only 15, she read Wilkerson’s book, The Cross and the Switchblade. When she finished the book, Rhonda was convinced that God was calling on her to work with alcoholics and those trapped by addiction. Rhonda never forgot that revelation. It would be nearly 35 years later before she was finally ready to answer that call.
Finding Her Way
As an adult, Rhonda worked in several different jobs, all of which she understands now were preparing her for her ministry. She was a receptionist and a secretary for a time. Later she had a cleaning service and a wallpaper hanging/decorating business. She always found time to help others, and especially enjoyed caring for elderly women by taking them on their errands, and cooking and cleaning for them. “Every job I had, owning a business, and caring for the elderly were all stepping stones to prepare me for ministry leadership,” she says.
Another important step toward her ministry (though she did not know it then) happened when she was a teenager and her parents became foster parents for two young boys who had been abused and badly neglected. They lived with the family for over a decade. Rhonda saw them become drug-addicted because of the years of abuse. To see firsthand those in great need was an important opportunity for her.
The lessons she learned from her foster brothers remained with her. In September 2000, Rhonda was working in New Orleans as director of a halfway house for prostitutes and addicts on heroine and crack. This was her first fulltime ministry and she was 49-years-old.
Although it was often overwhelming, she believed that the Lord had told her when she was 15 that this would be her work. She laughs now when she admits that she kept telling the Lord that she didn’t know what she was doing. His answer was always the same – that He had chosen her for this work. She saw children fending for themselves on the streets, and living in badly neglected housing projects. Rhonda learned to help one child at a time and make a difference in that one life. Then she could help another child, and then another.
To Grace Place
In 1999, Rhonda suffered a major disability because of degenerative disc disease. She had to live with friends who could care for her. During this time, Rhonda says that she heard God speak to her spirit again and understood Him to say “Grace Place.” That meant nothing to her at the time. Soon thereafter, she heard the Lord speak to her spirit, telling her that He was changing her name to “Grace.” She became so convinced that this was part of her destiny that she legally changed her last name to “Grace” in 2000. In September 2001, she established Grace Place Ministries – Ordinary People Serving an Extraordinary God.
After looking all over Ouachita Parish for a place to establish her ministry, Rhonda finally selected the southside of Monroe. On September 11, 2001, shortly after the Twin Towers were hit, she signed a lease on an 18-room house on South Grand.
The first step was to repair the badly neglected house. Badly vandalized and with major needs, the structure had to be repaired first and then renovations could begin. Eventually the home was completely renovated and landscaped, making it a welcoming oasis to all who needed its shelter and comfort.
Children from the neighborhood began coming twice a week for Bible Study and activities, giving Rhonda an awareness of their specific needs – unconditional love and guidance. Where she detected abuse, she called Child Protective Services. She had nurses come and teach abstinence classes. After-school tutoring classes were begun to help with schoolwork when parents (many absentee) couldn’t. “Some of those children who are now grownups still come by to see me,” Rhonda says with a smile.
Over the years since its inception, Grace Place has continually grown in the numbers of people its ministers to. The Grace Place ministry now offers a meal at noon three days a week; hands out food bags on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month; gives clothing and household items where needed; and does Christmas Child Outreach each year (in 2020 in a pouring rain, they gave out gift bags to 781 children). “When I first started Grace Place, God never told me there would be a children’s ministry,” Rhonda explains. “I thought I would be taking in women off the streets like the women I worked with in New Orleans. The children’s ministry wasn’t something I asked for, but the Lord asked me if I would love the children and teach them. How could I say ‘no’?”
Grace Place has changed locations several times since its beginning. After losing the lease on South Grand, Rhonda moved the operation across the street to a 4-room house that had been donated to Grace Place and began renovations again. Then in 2005, Rhonda saw a building on Jackson Street that she felt was destined to be the next Grace Place. After securing a loan and with no idea how she and her Board of Advisors would make the payments, she began renovating once again. After a year of renovating, 1600 Jackson Street had been transformed into a beautiful soup kitchen. “Once again, the Lord didn’t tell me in advance what He had planned,” she says. “A soup kitchen was never on my radar!”
Rhonda remembers the early days with the soup kitchen. With the help of several faithful volunteers, they cooked, cleaned, and served for the hungry. The numbers of hungry increased to the point that Rhonda reached out to several churches for help. Over time, more churches became involved. Each selected its menu, so there was variety in the meal offerings. They provided all of the ingredients and had their volunteers cook on site.
Today, all of the slots are filled by church and civic volunteers, but there is always a need for extra volunteers to help clean tables, carry trays for children and the elderly, sweep and mop, and be a smiling face to greet those who need it. Approximately 3,500 meals are served per month. “Grace Place is filling voids in the community by serving hot meals, food bags and clothing, and serving up the love of God and prayers to every man, woman, and child we can,” Rhonda says.
A Future of Service
Rhonda has traveled extensively, but her favorite destination of them all is Jerusalem, Israel. She has visited Jerusalem and that country three times. Susan Jones, a nurse and close friend who has traveled to Israel with Rhonda several times, describes Rhonda this way: “Rhonda Grace is a true servant and a true lover of Jesus. I have seen her continue to serve even in times of great physical illness and personal adversity. She has continued to do all that she can to take care of God’s children. Her ministry reaches across all ethnicities, colors, and ages. In Israel, Rhonda spent three months at her own personal expense ministering to terrorist attack survivors and encouraging the men and women there through prayer. While there – as here – she met the needs of people mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
“We all have traumas or hard times,” Rhonda explains. “But by God’s anointing, I see the hand of God move in people’s lives.” Based in part on her own life’s experiences, Rhonda offers counseling and inner healing from life’s traumas through personal counseling by appointment. Whether those needing counseling are among her own volunteers or strangers who come in off the streets, she is always willing to help others work through their challenges as much as she can.
Rhonda doesn’t see retirement as an option for her. She believes that she has at least 20+ more good years that will take her to 90. “As long as God wants to use me, and as long as there are needy people in spirit, soul, or body, I will be available,” she says. “God does not disqualify because of age, feebleness, frailty etc.; anyone who can be used by Him.”
Rhonda believes that in five to ten years she will still be serving people who hurt, whether through the Grace Place soup kitchen or another non-profit that she hopes to start soon. She is also considering writing a book about her lifetime of adventures.
When Rhonda is asked about how and why she does what she does, she answers simply. “I say that when the Lord asks me, I say that I am not qualified or have enough smarts or talents, and I am too old,” she says. “I have learned that He will give me all the resources I’ll need to accomplish all that He has planned for me to do. I rely on His grace and mercy, and not on my own abilities.”
Rhonda often says that that her entire life has been filled by God’s grace. Through many heavy struggles and personal doubts, that grace has seen her through and given her the courage and the will to continue moving forward. Saint Augustine of Hippo (theologian and writer – 354 AD – 430 AD) wrote, “For grace is given not because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them.” Such is certainly the case with Rhonda’s faith-filled life and countless good works.