Thirty-two counties in eastern Ohio are considered part of Appalachia, and the stereotypical images of that region's poverty—ramshackle houses, dilapitated barns, small businesses and large factories long shut down—are scattered throughout.
Mahoning County, abutting the Pennsylvania state line, about midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, is Exhibit A. Some 17 percent of the county's 240,000-plus residents, including almost 26 percent of its children, live below the poverty line.
Shonie Garono knows the situation all too well. In 2008, her husband, Anthony, was laid off from his steel mill job (he remains unemployed), and her income as a hairdresser didn't support the family. Though family members have helped to feed the Garonos' four children, the couple struggles to pay every bill and has come close to foreclosure a couple times.
Cathy and Brian French know, too. Cathy stays home with their four kids while Brian works as a diesel technician, repairing semi-trucks. But as the cost of living rose—and Brian's pay didn't—it wasn't long before the family was falling $200 to $300 short in their monthly budget. They have never missed a rent payment and regularly pay utility bills, but even with scrimping and stretching, they often run out of milk and meat until Brian's next pay period. They have resorted to rolling quarters and dimes to pay for Brian's commute.
Where to turn for help? For these families and many others in Mahoning, the answer is a 22,000-square-foot warehouse in the middle of nowhere. The Big Reach Center of Hope, a 501(c)(3) ministry of Greenford Christian Church, is a food pantry and distribution center situated in a town so small it's an unincorporated dot on the Ohio map. But its reach is indeed big: The center, which serves five counties, has provided food and clothing to nearly 150,000 individuals since its inauspicious opening in 2004, including 70,000 individuals in 2010 alone, making it one of Ohio's biggest food pantries. (The largest, Freestore Food Bank's Customer Connections Center, based in Cincinnati, serves about 90,000 clients annually.)
Some clients drive nearly two hours to Big Reach. For those who cannot make the trek, the ministry supplies food to 25 partner pantries in the region, giving tentacles to its centralized location.
The largest nearby city, Youngstown, and the rest of the Mahoning Valley area has been especially hard hit by the faltering economy, feeling the impact before most of America, says Big Reach co-founder and director Scott Lewis: "We knew there was a recession before the government did."
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Youngstown area's unemployment rate has more than doubled in three years, from 6.2 percent in 2007 to 14 percent in June 2010. By October 2010, the rate had improved to 10.6 percent, still higher than the national average of 9.2 percent. Youngstown's situation is complicated by a rapidly shrinking population, from 166,000 in 1960 to 82,000 today, primarily due to the loss of steel and manufacturing industries.
But while Youngstown has its own food pantries and homeless ministries, Big Reach serves mostly people from the surrounding fields and farms, a microcosm of rural poverty in America. (See "A Developing Nation Inside the U.S.")
Howard Jones, 66, is the face of such poverty. A resident of nearby Lisbon, Jones had been a millwright at a steel mill, "the whole bread and butter" of the area and an industry that has essentially vanished, for 27 years. When Jones retired, he began visiting Big Reach to fill the gaps left over after Social Security. He estimates that 90 percent of his monthly groceries come from the ministry. "I can't take my wife out to dinner any more," Jones says, "but God's always provided for me."
Big Reach's 2004 launch was modest enough. Lewis and other Greenford Christian members simply wanted to help children from low-income families in their church and community. They held a one-day "Big Reach Back to School" event, providing kids with school supplies and families with food, clothing, and personal care products. Soon after, they launched the Giving Tree, a food and clothing distribution center in the nondenominational church's basement.
By 2006, they were providing food and clothing to nearly 8,000 individuals, and the demand kept increasing. That fall, WYTV (ABC'S Youngstown affiliate) and local businesses sponsored the Mahoning County Extreme Makeover: My Hometown to build the Big Reach Center of Hope—complete with offices, a kitchen, and a massive warehouse—in 10 days. The warehouse sits on the property of the church, which paid for about 20 percent of the $1.2 million project, with corporations and individuals donating the rest in materials, labor, and furnishings.
Today, Greenford Christian provides the center's leadership, staff, some funding, and most of its volunteers. Church administrator Bruce Rhoades Jr. says 23 cents of every dollar given to the church goes to missions; of that, 8 percent—about $50,000 a year—goes to Big Reach. The rest of the center's annual budget of approximately $200,000 comes from individuals, grants, and corporations. Its staff are always seeking ways to bring in more food and funding.
Seeing the Other Side
When his children were young, Big Reach's Lewis went through a difficult financial time and, as a last resort, visited a food bank. He was embarrassed and feared he'd be looked down upon, but instead he was treated with respect. The experience is seared into his memory: "I want the people here to be treated with respect like I was," says the soft-spoken Lewis, who trains his volunteers to treat each client as a person with specific needs facing a particularly trying time. "I tell them to envision themselves on the other side. Many of our clients never thought they'd be here."
One way staff respect the dignity of clients is allowing them to have a shopping experience rather than handing them a pre-packaged box of food. During Big Reach's twice-a-week distributions, volunteers walk clients through the grocery section, partly to ensure the allotted amount of food is taken. (A family allotment is based on two criteria: the amount of a particular product in stock, and family size as it relates to a serving size of food.) Clients are also allowed to take a limited supply of toiletries. Most families leave with a basket with three or four meals, plus clothing, housewares, and sometimes a toy or two. (Christianity Today explored the benefits of client choice at food pantries in the December 2010 issue's news section.)
Katherine Yoder, 40, has been on both sides of Big Reach's kindness—first as a recipient, then as a volunteer. Five years ago, after a divorce and with little income, she visited the center. "Everyone was so warm and welcoming," she said. "People smiled and asked how they could help. I felt at peace." Now remarried and with a blended family, Yoder volunteers at the pantry. This is another of its dignifying aspects: It allows clients who have logged at least 20 volunteer hours to shop one extra time on distribution days. Yoder occasionally visits as a client when finances are tight, but now mostly takes the food she earns through volunteering.
'It Gets Us Through'
At a recent distribution, some clients lined up more than four hours before the 5 p.m. start. They were as diverse as they were eager. One young couple was in grad school; several elderly men and women were on disability; others had small children in tow, including Garono, who brought her 5-year-old triplets and her mother.
Later, as daughter Julie found a doll she liked in the toy section, Garono spoke of Big Reach as a lifeline: "It's so wonderful. The food, the toys—they help so much, you wouldn't believe. It gets us through."
Clients' financial status varies significantly. Many listed in the Big Reach database report an income of $800 or less a month. Some have no income; some are living in cars. Lewis says most of his clients come from chronically poor family systems and are unemployed or underemployed. He estimates that 60 percent are on welfare. Though it's not required, Lewis mostly follows guidelines from the usda's Emergency Food Assistance Program. "Most people we help fall below the poverty level," he says. "I try to never turn anyone away. If they've been turned down for food stamps because they are $10 above [the limit], I take them in."
Such work takes its toll on the volunteers, who see the pain of poverty up close day after day. "Sometimes they see a friend or family member they didn't know was struggling," says Lewis. "It tugs on our hearts." Though Lewis has plenty of volunteers—some 150 throughout the year—he sometimes struggles to keep them motivated in an environment where clients are in such need and interactions are so emotionally taxing. "You sometimes ask yourself, 'What are we doing this for?'?"
Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams, meanwhile, says he's "almost moved to tears" by Big Reach's work. "The level of compassion and sophistication is incredible. It's a significant force of positive outreach in this community. We are much better off for it."
Cathy and Brian French agree. In the midst of their struggles, a friend suggested that Cathy visit Big Reach for help with groceries. When she found out clients could volunteer to work, she signed up immediately. "I didn't feel quite as guilty about going through the line and getting free food because I feel like I'm working for it," says French. She now volunteers 20 hours a week and says the food she receives provides 60-75 percent of their groceries, which allows her to stay on top of bills.
Lewis hears story after story like that, but still can't believe it. "I can't explain the building being here," he says. "I can't explain Big Reach being here. God is in control. It's a God thing."
Nicole Russell has written for Politico, Parents, Parenting, World, and Focus on the Family publications.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This story accompanies "A Developing Nation Inside the U.S."
See other Missions & Ministry articles from Christianity Today.
Previous articles on food ministry include:
Let People Shop | Food pantries feed more, waste less with client choice. (November 23, 2010)
'Hunger Can Be Conquered' | And, says former Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Thurow, churches have a crucial role to play. (February 24, 2010)
A Run on a Different Sort of Bank | Food banks are making do with kumquats, pomegranates and artichokes. (March 23, 2008)
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