In Abilene, a Helping Hand in Hard Times
On a strangely balmy mid-March morning, while other retired folk were out on the golf course or enjoying a pottery class, Jean Butler was, as she generally is, listening to the economic woes of people just trying to make ends meet who rang her cell phone every few minutes as we sat and talked in her office. When she became the Coordinator of the United Methodist Service Center and Food Pantries in November 2008, one of her first cost-saving measures was to transition office operations to her living room and cell phone which she answers seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m.
“With that high an electric bill, I think your parents will qualify for assistance,” Butler assured the caller as she searched the state-wide Call for Help database that tracks families needing help. “Do they need food?” she queried.
“For many of our clients the food pantry makes it possible to keep the heat on during the frigid winter we just had – or pay for a prescription,” she explained after making arrangements to speak with the caller again in a couple of hours.
In the neat, tidy, if modest, red brick home she shares with her husband (a retired United Methodist pastor turned counselor) of 41 years, her work shares space with art objects created by her children and photographs of grandkids. Their well-manicured home and lawn stand in contrast to many weed and debris-strewn yards and unkempt houses in the declining neighborhood.
“It’s true, many of our clients come from neighborhoods like this one, but the real truth is that while there may be a larger volume of clients from certain areas, in these times, hunger and hard times can strike anywhere,” Butler observed. “In fact, like other food pantries we have seen growing numbers of first time clients, around 19 percent,” she continued.
The numbers confirm that. In 2007 they provided food for 1,042 families, a number that has climbed to 6,682 families assisted in 2010. Part of the growth is from a night pantry started in 2008 at Epworth UMC, an addition to the daytime pantry at First UMC Abilene. Unable to take off work to access daytime pantries, the working poor have swelled the lines at the night pantry.
In addition to preventing many of these families from slipping further and further into poverty, the night pantry turned the death of a church into the birth of a ministry. The victim of decades of dwindling membership and changing demographics, Epworth UMC held its last worship service July 25, 2010. Now, instead of worship, their 67 years of praising God continues to be lived out in compassionate acts of mercy and justice at the food pantry every week. During January 2011 alone, the pantry supplied 519 families with enough food for three meals a day for one week. Sixty-one families received financial assistance, so they could keep the heat on or remain in their homes.
“Without grants, we simply wouldn’t be able to help with financial assistance with utilities, rent, prescriptions, and health care expenses,” Butler explained. “That’s why the funds from the Texas Methodist Foundation are so crucial,” she continued. For the past two years TMF has awarded special grant funds – $20,000 to each of the six conferences we serve in 2009 and $25,000 to each conference in 2010 – for the purpose of assisting outreach ministries like the United Methodist Service Center as they respond to critical needs created by these lean economic times.
In addition to $11,250 received from those grants, the UM Service Center and Food Pantries received $24,000 from TMF’s discretionary grant funds. “The Great Recession has ended, according to many. But it’s still very real to millions of men and women in our country who wake up every day to the grim reality of empty pockets, empty cupboards, and hungry children,” said Candy Gross, TMF Senior V.P. of Charitable Services and Grants. “We are grateful that TMF’s financial stability enables us to partner with organizations like this one and servants like Jean who are faithfully ministering to ‘the least of these,’” she continued.
With economic stimulus programs ended, harsh cuts to state health and human services, and predictions of continued unemployment, the purchasing power of food pantry clients is not likely to improve for some time. “Our clients know the value of a dollar. A $58 utility bill can be a huge expense for them. They bundle up, turn the thermostat down, and, unfortunately, skimp on their most necessary expense – healthy food. That’s the shame of it,” Butler lamented.
And then she answers the phone again. An indefatigable “pushing 70,” as she says, Butler is circumspect when asked about her life of service that includes 15 years of medical mission trips to Guatemala, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, and missionary work in Mexico City. “I guess I was just born lucky,” she replied simply, without a hint of irony. The belief that a life of service is, indeed, “the good life” is so ingrained that she doesn’t even acknowledge another choice. Perhaps that’s why she has been so successful at forming a strong coalition of support from area United Methodist churches and other community organizations.
Who would want to sleep late when you could be lending a helping hand to your neighbor?