Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter
When the economy takes a turn for the worse, budgets must be trimmed, and the first thing that usually goes is financial support for public assistance agencies.
Unfortunately, when the economy is down, that’s when those services are needed most.
Collegiate and Northminster Presbyterian churches, sister churches in Ames, Iowa, know this, and set out to boost support of a few of the local organizations they work with to try to minimize the impact of reduced government funding.
Northminster branched off from Collegiate in 1961 to better serve the growing northeast portion of the city of Ames, but the two congregations have remained close and often work together to serve Ames as a whole.
“We’re all Presbyterian, and Ames, while it’s a good-sized city for Iowa, is still pretty much a small town,” said Cynthia Jenks, former chair of the Church and Society committee for Collegiate. “We just like to work together. We think it sets a good example for the community too.”
The churches are involved heavily in local mission work, and saw that several of the organizations they serve were struggling.
ACCESS, the Assault Care Center Extending Shelter and Support, helps victims of domestic or sexual violence, providing both counseling and shelter.
Beyond Welfare helps families trying to become less dependent on public assistance money to become self sufficient.
The Wheels to Work program, part of Beyond Welfare, is a specific cause of Northminster Presbyterian and helps provide vehicles and funds for vehicle licensing and maintenance to enable people to get and keep better jobs in the city of Ames.
Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance provides the Healthy Food Voucher program that gives needy families vouchers to buy dairy products, fruit, vegetables and meat.
Thanks to increased demand, already-scant resources were strained or running out altogether well before the end of the year last year. To add to that stress, these same organizations were facing heavy cuts in state funding as Iowa struggled to meet its own budget.
“Beyond Welfare was especially hard hit because most of their money comes from the state,” said Jenks.
“We wanted to step up our assistance to these programs to help fill the loss somewhat,” Jenks said. “Also, we wanted to create awareness of these organizations both among our members and the community as a whole in hopes that they might help out and volunteer or even give individually themselves.”
The two churches turned to the Presbytery of North Central Iowa for this increased support. The presbytery began offering grants a few years ago to encourage member churches to be involved in local missions.
“Our program was designed to encourage hands-on ministry,” said executive presbyter the Rev. David Feltman. “We wanted to try to spread money out among more local agencies and encourage creativity among our churches.”
The presbytery holds an annual consultation in the fall where churches can come and make presentations to the grant committee. The committee then decides how to use the money that is available. Last year, the grant committee awarded $47,000 total in grants, Feltman said, adding that the program has been very successful so far and the number of churches participating continues to grow. Churches report back to the presbytery on how they used the funds and if the program worked out as anticipated.
“Every fall when we have these presentations, we come away refreshed and renewed by the good going on,” Feltman said.
Collegiate and Northminster assembled grant proposals for the three organizations they wanted to help and made successful presentations. They were awarded grants for all three.
The grants total $8,000, with $4,000 going to Beyond Welfare’s Wheels to Work, $3,150 going to ACCESS and $1,500 going to the Healthy Food Voucher program of Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance. Both churches will also put in matching funds of some sort — either of in-kind services or actual donations.
As part of the grant presentation, the churches have very specific plans in place for the funds received. The grant given to Wheels to Work will be used to provide up to $500 per family participating in the program for small repairs, oil changes, registration costs, title transfers or any other expenses or maintenance required to make cars available.
“Many of the jobs in this area are in the city of Ames,” said Jenks. “But taxes and property costs are so high, most of the poorer residents live outside the city limits. Transportation needs can be a real issue, and if they don’t have a car, it can be very difficult to get or hold onto a job, which is important for helping people and families become more self-sufficient, the goal of the Beyond Welfare program. Sometimes their car simply breaks down and they can’t afford to fix it.”
The $3,150 going to ACCESS is enough to pay for seven one-hour counseling sessions and a week’s worth of food and shelter for five people.
The $1,500 going to the Healthy Food Voucher program will by more vouchers. Last year, the program ran out of vouchers before the end of the year, and given the funding cuts for 2009 and the rising need, the vouchers would likely have run out by July. The grant should help insure the program can run longer and will have more vouchers available to give out.
But while the money will help the programs continue for now, Jenks stressed that it’s the attention and the community exposure that will be most valuable.
“Sometimes people don’t know or understand what the problems are, but if you educate them and draw attention to it, then hopefully they will follow the example and volunteer or give themselves, and that’s what leads to real success,” she said.
Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, NC, where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.