About three years ago, volunteers from First UMC, Starke, went in search of a ministry to feed the hungry. They found the Lost Valley Campground.
The trailer park is a cluster of aging campers rented to people who have nowhere else to go. Many of the men are on parole or probation and were assigned to live there by courts; others have mental illnesses or emotional problems. Or they are retired, living on limited income from disability or Social Security.
Each Tuesday, volunteers deliver crockpot meals to about 40 residents at Lost Valley and share their faith with devotions and scripture.
"These are people who care about God and have an element of faith, and they are willing to have devotions out there," says Carole Stevenson, founder and organizer of the outreach effort dubbed “the crockpot ministry.”
The campground was founded years ago by a Baptist minister who wanted to give affordable shelter to families with little money and few options. Today Lost Valley is operated by his daughter, Ruby Harper.
"She is dedicated to keeping it going that way," Stevenson says.
When Stevenson and a group of church volunteers first decided to start a feeding ministry, it wasn't as easy as they thought.
They reached out to residents at The Apartments, a public housing project in Starke. Only a handful of people showed up. A few children took cookies, Stevenson says.
As a former teacher, she remembered a student who had once lived at Lost Valley, only about four miles from First UMC. She gave him a ride home one day, but when they arrived, his father was not there and he didn't feel safe alone.
"He refused to get out of my car," Stevenson recalls.
A ministry at Lost Valley was not something Stevenson thought would be in her comfort zone. But volunteers decided to reach out to the residents.
"We were serving out of the back of my car," Stevenson says.
They bought a small tent. Later Harper put up a larger one. And volunteers put in picnic tables that, as Stevenson says, "don't walk away."
During winter months, church volunteers hand out blankets and warm clothes. Stevenson remembers a woman who asked for extra socks, explaining that she and her husband shared a single pair.
"That gave us an idea of the tremendous need out there," Stevenson says.
Church members noticed a bathhouse in disrepair, and the First UMC men's group took charge. Stevenson's husband, Warren, organized volunteers who repaired the plumbing and installed new showers.
The residents have taken great pride in seeing the improvements, Carole Stevenson says.
"We have seen such a change out there," she says. "It's been a work in progress to see how it has evolved."
She visits the campground every week. Other volunteers are organized into eight teams who rotate their service in the ministry.
Briefly, church members tried bringing Lost Valley residents to First UMC.
"To say it was a disaster was an understatement," Stevenson says. "They were horribly threatened if someone wanted to shake their hand."
Some struggle with compulsive or obsessive behaviors. One man is a "Bible thumper," says Stevenson, but he's very particular. "He'll only use the King James Bible."
No one at the campground has a car, and it didn't seem feasible to use the church van.
"They are a bunch of characters, but I love them," she says. "In their own dysfunctional way, they are godly people. You have to take them as they are. You can't expect anything in return. Don't ask for a ‘thank you.’"
But Stevenson says the 75 or so volunteers who serve in the ministry feel blessed to do so.
"They do it because they have grown to love them (residents)," she says. "They have come to realize this is their ministry. But for the grace of God, there go I."
– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.