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Churches form non-profit to help needy in small town

Churches form non-profit to help needy in small town

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches form non-profit to help needy in small town

July 26, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0337} 

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

OCKLAWAHA — The Rev. Gary Eldred believes churches have a responsibility to reach outside their walls and do more in a community than sit on a corner and serve the members on the inside.

Eldred, now pastor at First United Methodist Church, High Springs, was pastor at Ocklawaha United Methodist Church here when it became involved in a unique partnership with other churches that stretches across denominational lines to help those in need in the small town just outside Ocala.

About four years ago, his church joined the First Baptist churches of Weirsdale and Stanton, the non-denominational Garden of Prayer church, and Weirsdale Presbyterian Church to form the non-profit group Community of Gratitude.

It began when the Rev. Bruce Seaman, the Presbyterian pastor, began to realize the area's kindergarten-aged children weren't prepared when they entered school.

"They were behind from the start," Eldred said. "We decided to reach out to the parents to help them get the children ready. This is a hard place economically, and many of the residents resist help from government agencies."

The area is home to some of Marion County's most disadvantaged residents, but it is also speckled with some of the county's more affluent citizens. Eldred said it was one of those residents who accompanied him on a tour of the local elementary school, and both men were shocked by what they saw.

"The flag pole was rusted, and there was an awful stench in the boy's restroom," he said. "There were cracks all in the sidewalks. It was like this school in the southern edge of the county was forgotten or just left behind."

Eldred and the group's other pastors vowed the school and its children would no longer be forgotten and started a Success By 6 program at the school. Success By 6 is a nationwide initiative organized through local United Ways. The philosophy behind it is that the years 0 to 6 are critical times of development for children. The goal is to give resources to parents to help them prepare their children to enter school and be successful.

OCKLAWAHA —  Carolyn Kerson, interim director of the Ocklawaha Emergency Food Center, a ministry of Community of Gratitude, works in one of the pantry areas of the center, located on the property of Ocklawaha United Methodist Church. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #05-215.

Once Success By 6 was up and running, Eldred thought it was enough until the Presbyterian pastor's son decided to start an emergency food center in the area for his Eagle Scout project. Ocklawaha United Methodist Church just happened to have an old building on its property that was going to be demolished. Instead, it was remodeled with help from Boy Scout Troop 113, churches, community groups and area businesses and citizens. It became an emergency food center March 1, 2004, serving primarily elderly residents and families with children.

Carolyn Kerson, a member of Weirsdale Presbyterian Church, is the interim director at the center. She said its clients come only from the immediate surrounding areas of East Lake Weir, Ocklawaha and Weirsdale. They must meet income eligibility and can only receive items once a month.

Kerson said the center helped 12 people with food assistance when it opened. Now, it averages 80 people per month and is open 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays. Volunteers sort and pack the food when it is closed.

"The churches that are involved are not huge churches," Kerson noted, adding the food bank recently received a grant from United Way of Marion County. It's also funded with gifts from local businesses and individuals and a block grant from the Presbytery of St. Augustine.
"Just to know that, together, we are helping people — it's a wonderful feeling," Kerson said. 

Eldred said church members feel good about the positive impact Community of Gratitude is having on the community and in the school.

"We had a lot of support from the principal," he said. "There is a gray line between church and state. Somehow we got over hurdles. It just all came together — we were the right people at the right time at the right place. I've moved on, and so has the Presbyterian pastor, but the Community of Gratitude is still going strong."

The group is going so strong it has started a string of other programs and services:

* A school readiness program that helps parents become their child's first teacher by providing helpful resources and supportive environments, including a free book distribution program called Little Red Bookcases. Children can go to participating local stores and either take one book per visit to read and return or keep to read again.

* The Gammons Families Completing Activities Together (FCAT) Program, which encourages families to be learning teams. School officials and teachers prepare a calendar of family learning activities geared to learning objectives at each grade level.

* A community fair held in conjunction with the school's open house in late August. More than 1,000 area residents attended the first fair, which is free and designed to gain information about households in the community. Basic funding comes from Weirsdale Presbyterian Church, but many other community businesses, churches and individuals also contribute. Kids Kits that include either personal hygiene items or school supplies are also distributed at the fair. A shopping list is given to donors inside a gallon Ziploc bag. They buy the items, place them in the bag and return the kit in time to be distributed.

* A free community newsletter that keeps residents up-to-date with what's going in the area.

Daniel Sanford, a board member of Community of Gratitude, said it does feel good to help those in need. He said since several storms hit the area last year, it seems even more people are requesting help in feeding their families.

"We could help even more people if more churches joined us," he said. Sanford volunteers at the food bank three times a week.

Eldred said helping people, especially with basic necessities, such as food, is a Kingdom of God issue.

"It says a lot to the community that churches are willing to put legs to what they hear Sunday after Sunday," he said. "Churches are supposed to be confronting social justice issues.

"I don't know if I could have done this by myself. I just grabbed hold of the vision of someone else and went with it, but I like to think there are United Methodist pastors who could do it."

Eldred said he has personally been impacted by Community of Gratitude.

"I have grown," he said. "I am a very different pastor, more concerned about the whole issue of social justice. I think because we got involved the school has a shiny new flagpole, the cracks in the sidewalk have been fixed and there are new classrooms. People didn't expect it, but we did it."


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.