Community takes care of needy all year long
By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on November 25, 2010 12:07 AM
The day before Thanksgiving, the phone rang every few minutes in Community Soup Kitchen Director Doricia Benton's office as an army of volunteers made sandwiches and prepared turkeys in the kitchen.
Most of the calls were from people hoping to volunteer, but the director had to turn them down. The volunteers serving Thanksgiving dinner signed up months in advance, but Ms. Benton did jot down a few names of potential helpers -- if they didn't mind waiting until April, the closest open date, to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
That's how far in advance the Community Soup Kitchen tends to book its volunteers, and a sign of how invested the Wayne County community is in helping others, Mrs. Benton said.
"Sometimes it's hard for words to describe how they embrace the soup kitchen," she said.
That caring and community closeness is being tested, as many people in Wayne County are still struggling even two years after the onset of the financial crisis dubbed the "great recession." Local aid agencies are working hard to keep up with the level of need, which, most reported, has only increased.
The Community Soup Kitchen prepared to serve 150 Thanksgiving Day meals, about 20-50 more than on a normal day, and is also providing take-out plates so diners get a good dinner as well as lunch.
"Some of the friends, this is the only Thanksgiving meal they have," Mrs. Benton said.
And it's when people are sitting down to eat that they often start talking about their lives and their struggles. Some of the things Mrs. Benton sees make it hard to keep her professional composure, such as a recent case of several families living in their cars along with their small children.
"That's when I find out certain things, their needs," she said.
The need in the community has only ever increased from year to year, Mrs. Benton reported. The soup kitchen served about 30,000 meals last year, and anticipates serving an additional 3,000 meals this year on top of that.
Regardless of their situation, the soup kitchen is there to offer a nutritious meal to anyone who comes in, with no questions asked, Mrs. Benton said.
Having worked in the soup kitchen for 17 years, the director seen some of the people who drop by for a hot meal -- people she always calls her friends -- make it to better times, and return to volunteer their own help at the same place that made sure they didn't go hungry.
"It's a beautiful feeling, a beautiful feeling to have that. Even after things get better for them, they did not forget the help that was given to them," she said.
The soup kitchen went into the holidays stocked with over 13,000 cans, thanks to a recent food drive effort, another example of the support for which Mrs. Benton is extremely grateful.
But the kitchen opens about 125-150 cans of food a day and serves anywhere from 100 to 130 meals daily. The need is always present. "It's not just a holiday thing," Mrs. Benton said. "It's a continual need, six days a week, 52 weeks a year."
Some charitable organizations, like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference, have seen an increase in recent years in the number of people who ordinarily get by on their own without assistance, but now are asking for help.
Many people who have typically lived from paycheck to paycheck in the past have ended up in dire straits after suddenly facing a financial difficulty, society president Pat O'Connell said.
If someone loses his job and has no savings, that might be all it takes to cause financial strain. As many as a third of the phone calls the group receives every week are from people who are employed but have had their hours or pay cut, or people who have recently become unemployed or suffered other unexpected hardship, Mrs. O'Connell reported.
"Suddenly they're a paycheck away from crisis. They lose the paycheck either through sickness, job loss or cut, and they don't know what to do. They're just lost," she said.
With many people needing assistance, the group has had to refocus its efforts on people experiencing a crisis they could not anticipate in order to best serve their mission.
"They have an electricity bill, they have rent due, they have water, they're completely overwhelmed. ... We try to figure out what is the overall need," Mrs. O'Connell said.
In September 2009, the non-profit received upwards of 145 calls in a single week from people asking for help with their utilities and rent payments. The group saw another big jump in requests for help earlier this year. Currently they are able to help about five to 12 families every week, Mrs. O'Connell said.
Besides helping with rent and mortgage payments to keep families in their homes, the society is also consistently spending more time visiting with each household they help to teach them about ways to lower their expenses.
"We are spending more and more time looking at their windows, talking about the temperature of the hot water heater, talking about the way they have the blinds tilted," Mrs. O'Connell said. "Those are the things that people can control. They can't control that their hours got cut, but they can control how much water they use."
On the other hand, there are some individuals who have not learned how to best stretch their resources, despite having experienced financial hardship for an extended period of time, she said.
The society also works with people who are on food stamps or other assistance to teach them how to use what resources they do have in a wise fashion. Frequently the volunteers will survey their shopping habits and encourage them to develop better purchasing options that can offer better nutrition over a month's time.
"We understand that the purpose of food stamps is to augment what people have available to purchase their food," Mrs. O'Connell said.
Coming into the winter months, the group may need to turn its attentions to another segment of society -- seasonal and farm workers who won't be working during the cold weather season. They often need help with the typically higher utility bills as the temperature drops, Mrs. O'Connell said.
The Salvation Army likewise expects to see an increase in the number of people needing help through the organization's aid programs. The group hopes to raise $60,000 in Wayne County to support those programs through its red kettle fundraising drive, Salvation Army Maj. Andrew Wiley.
The Wayne County Salvation Army is a branch of the international aid organization that serves thousands of people in need every year. The non-profit outreach offers a variety of assistance to many locals -- everything from helping with food and clothing to some utility and rental assistance.
"We also operate a 16-bed homeless shelter for men, that a lot of people don't even realize we have," Wiley said. "They can come into our program, and as long as they are following the guidelines of the program, they can stay up to 90 days."
The shelter is not a "stop here and stay forever" place, however. The Salvation Army closes the shelter during the day so that residents will spend their time looking for work. The shelter also conducts random testing and has a zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol.
The number of people in the shelter varies, Wiley said.
"Sometimes we'll have a full house and other times not. I've been doing what I do for 27 years. There is no rhyme or reason, there is no one thing you can point to and say this is why it's full. It fluctuates," he said.
Given the generally moderate spring and fall temperatures in North Carolina, the shelter tends to have a higher population in the winter months than the rest of the year, he said.
There is some turnover, Wiley said, with a few people getting back on their feet, landing jobs and starting over. But for others, part time, seasonal or other temporary work is all that is readily available.
"As far as anything long-term, I think they're having trouble with it," Wiley said. "From what we're seeing, we're still seeing people every day who are struggling, or if they do find work, it's short term. It's a challenge right now in the county."