CARING IN TIME OF NEED
By John Armistead
NEW ALBANY She’s proud and it’s not easy for her to talk about having to ask for help.
“I’m a disabled lady and I have a husband who’s working but he’s on the doctor too, and it’s just taken it all,” she said. “I tell you I did all I could not to get no help, but it came to the point where I couldn’t do nothing else.”
Someone told her about a place where she could get some food and maybe help with her light bill also. That place, which hundreds of others also find each year, is the Union County Good Samaritan Center in New Albany.
Pooling God’s resources
Now in its 10th year, the Good Samaritan Center comes to the aid of Union County families waylaid by unexpected financial setbacks. Specifically, the center assists with past-due mortgage and rent payments, past-due utility payments and LP gas bills, and maintains an emergency food pantry.
In an average year, the center aids about 500 households. However, recent factory layoffs in Union County have caused a dramatic jump in that figure. Already during the first six months of this year, 424 families have received assistance.
The Rev. Marvin Cox, director of missions for the Union County Baptist Association, is chairman of the center’s board of directors and has been involved with the work from its beginning. Cox remembers what the situation was like 10 years ago before the churches came together to organize the ministry.
“If you were trying to get up $100 for a family’s utility bill, you had to go to several churches,” he said. “Also, there was the problem of some people making the rounds of all the churches and taking advantage.”
Cox and several other New Albany ministers realized that it would be to the advantage of both churches and community if the churches worked together rather than separately to help those in need.
Betty Campbell, administrative assistant at New Albany’s First United Methodist Church, also recalls how difficult being a good steward of the church’s benevolent funds was in those pre-center days. “We weren’t helping those we should and were instead helping those who didn’t really need it,” she said.
One of the key leaders in organizing the new inter-church ministry was the Rev. Will Steinbacker, then pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New Albany. “Father Will was the force behind us,” said Campbell. “He had a lot of compassion.”
The Rev. Bill Everett, pastor of New Albany Presbyterian Church, was also one of the pioneers in forming the center. “It’s not intended to solve their problems,” he said of those who are helped, “but it’s like the good Samaritan parable. It meets their immediate need.”
Everett says there is no reason why different denominations can’t work together on such a project. “I see it as a pooling of God’s resources,” he said. “It’s coming together in the name of Christ to do what needs to be done. Any child of God should be able to offer a cup of cold water in Christ’s name.”
‘You helped my sister’
Most of those who come in for help are referred by churches or social agencies.
“Often the Department of Human Services will call and ask us to help someone who will not be eligible for food stamps right away,” said Paula Ferguson, who is now in her fourth year as the center’s volunteer director. “And we get a lot of people who are ineligible for the things we can help them with but we can refer them. A lady the other day needed school supplies for her daughter and we referred her to the Junior Auxiliary.”
Ferguson was trying to assist another woman find a job. Finally, the director recognized the woman had a reading problem and sent her to Union County’s Literacy Council so she could be tutored.
Frequently, plant layoffs or cutbacks in working hours leave families who have never had to seek assistance suddenly desperate. Seventy percent of the families helped had children, and most of these families only need a one-time help with a house note or utility bill to maintain their independence. Assistance is limited to once a year with all help except for food.
“We’ll feed close to 1,000 people through the end of September,” said Ferguson.
Many people, once they get on their feet, contribute to the work of the center. “One family we helped came back three weeks later as soon as he got a paycheck,” said Ferguson. “The man came in with a box of groceries for our pantry.”
Marvin Cox remembers another such case. “A man walked in and gave us $100 in 20s,” he said. “He just said, ‘You helped my sister.'”
Keeping the lights shining
The money to help comes from several sources. Four years ago, the New Albany Light, Gas and Water Company began offering its customers an opportunity to add a dollar to their monthly bills. This contribution was then turned over to the Good Samaritan Center to assist families needing emergency utility assistance. During the last year, the center has received almost $8,000 from this program.
FEMA funds are administered by the center, and throughout the years some individual, corporate, and club gifts have been given, but the real backbone of support comes from the area’s participating churches. They are New Albany Presbyterian, New Albany’s First Baptist Church, St. Frances of Assisi Catholic Church, First United Methodist Church, Hillcrest Baptist Church, Union County Baptist Association, Beulah Baptist Church and Jericho Baptist Church
Martha Robbins and Martha Lamar are two of the more than 30 volunteers who work at the center. “There are so many people in Union County who are unable to work,” said Lamar, who is in her first year as a volunteer.
Robbins, who has been a volunteer since the very beginning, stated her reason for working at the center: “There’s a tremendous need and my life is rich. So, I asked, ‘How can I help?'”
“My husband had been fired and we have three kids,” one woman said. The children range in age from four to nine. The family’s utilities were in the process of being cut off. The center helped her keep the lights on.
“It’s very frightening when you need help,” she continued. “It made me feel good that there’s something like that. They didn’t know me, and they reached out to us. They were very kind and very understanding. You think you just about have to give up and that nobody cares, but they were there, and they helped.”