Forsyth’s social service network absorbs unprecedented demand

by Keith Barber

Forsyth’s social service network absorbs unprecedented demandSanta’s little helpers

story and photos by Keith T. Barber

At this time of year, more than any other, it becomes very clear the fabric of our society is held together in large part by the work of agencies and individuals who endeavor to assist those in need. This is the essence of the Christmas spirit. YES! Weekly honors three of these unsung heroes understanding that they are representative of hundreds of others who toil tirelessly behind the scenes to help make all our lives better. Crisis control

A young man in his early 30s wiped away tears as Cynthia Fearrington handed him a check for $513.35. The check would cover one month’s rent and allow the man, a client of Crisis Control Ministry in Winston-Salem, to focus his attention on finding a job in construction after having been laid off by a plumbing contractor just days before Christmas. “I hope things turn around for you,” said Fearrington, Crisis Control’s director of client services. “You’re not alone.” Fearrington’s gentle assurances held an even greater meaning in the context of the vast network of Forsyth County’s social service agencies that have provided a safety net for the thousands of workers let go by area businesses and industries in recent months. The scene at Crisis Control Ministry the week before Christmas has been replicated at scores of other social service agencies in Winston-Salem this holiday season.

Fearrington said she’s seen more first-time requesters this year than at any other time during her 21-year career at the agency.

On Dec. 19, Fearrington escorted the man, a first-time requester, along the hallway that connects the client interview rooms to the agency’s food pantry. In hushed tones, he asked her if he could rejoin his 1-year-old son in the waiting area so his girlfriend could go shopping for food. Fearrington then directed the young lady to the agency’s fully-stocked food pantry. “I don’t think there could be a better job than this one,” she said. Former President Jimmy Carter once said that the measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens. On that score, Forsyth County measures up extremely well, Fearrington said. “Winston-Salem is a fantastic place to be. People are so generous here,” she said. Crisis Control is one of the few agencies in Forsyth that hasn’t had to accept government money because of the community’s generosity. Fearrington arrived at Crisis Control Ministry 21 years ago as a volunteer. The agency, founded by the city’s religious community in 1973 to assist the needy and working poor, now enjoys the support of more than 250 church congregations. Crisis Control is just one of hundreds of non-profit agencies in Forsyth, but it enjoys a number of distinctions.

A few minutes spent with Fearrington during her daily routine yields insight into how Crisis Control provides a bridge to independence for area families. During her Dec. 19 interview, Fearrington asked the young man seeking assistance for a recent pay stub, a rental receipt and a utility bill receipt. In the course of the 10-minute meeting, she learned the man had left a good-paying job in Pitt County and relocated to the area in an attempt to reconcile with his ex-wife. He accepted a pay cut to do so. When things didn’t work out with his ex-wife, the man said he found himself struggling to make ends meet on a meager $600 a month take-home pay. He explained his wages have been garnished due to child support payments. “I know they’re going to ask me how you’ve been doing this,” she said, referring to the client’s tenuous financial position. She recommended he petition the court to get his child support reduced. The client sighed heavily and said, “A lot of bad fathers have made it hard for the rest of us.” Then, Fearrington picked up the phone and made a call to Duke Energy to assess the client’s situation with his utility bill. She learned the client was scheduled to have his power cut off on Jan. 5. Moments later, she gave him her assessment. “You’re in pretty good shape. You only have to pay $48 for right now,” she said. She then walked over to a separate office and sat down with lead interviewer Nell Cavenaugh. The “two heads are better than one” approach is unique to Crisis Control. Keeping the lead interviewer separate from the client

takes human emotion outof the equation. “We use the head and the heart to make the decision,”Fearrington said. There is no one-size-fits-all approach at CrisisControl. “We personalize our care,” Fearrington said. “Mostagencies make a partial pledge of support. We don’t let anyone out ofhere without a complete plan of how this crisis is going to beresolved.” In years past, Crisis Control interviewers took apretty hard line with respect to the client formulating a plan forgetting back on their feet. But this year, interviewers have been morelenient in light of the current recession. “We used to say,‘We’ll help you out this month, but we need to know what your plan isfor next month,’ but most people have no idea what they’ll be doingnext month,” Fearrington said. What keeps her coming back each day isthe inspiration she receives from her clients. Every interviewroom at Crisis Control has a prayer request box. On Dec. 19,Fearrington said there were prayers for world peace and peace in thecommunity. “None of those prayers were selfish. I like tothink I could be that good,” she said. Maragaret Elliott, executivedirector of Crisis Control, said the agency is in good shapefinancially, but it needs more volunteers and a steady flow ofdonations. Fearrington said the only downside to her work isthe difficulty of separating her professional and personal lives, butit gets easier with time. Still, Fearrington admits that every time sheturns on her heat at home, she’s reminded of those who don’t have thatluxury. When she shops for her family’s Christmas dinner, she thinks ofclients shopping in the agency’s food pantry. Fearrington has seen first-hand the ripple effect of layoffs by local industries like Reynolds American and Hanesbrands and

the closings of dozens of small businesses. Sheoften wonders if everyone could walk in her shoes for one day, if theworld wouldn’t be a more generous place. “There’s a little bit of guiltthat I have so much, and then I think about these executives of thesebig companies and I wonder, ‘Where’s your guilt?’” she said.

‘GE’ of social services

JohnGladman placed his hands on his hips and gave a former client a hardlook. But Gladman, assistant director of social services for theSalvation Army in Winston-Salem, didn’t say a word. The woman, who hadonce been a shelter resident at the Salvation Army’s facility off TradeStreet, asked Gladman to admit her mother to the shelter one weekbefore Christmas. In the direct line of Gladman’s stare, the woman shrugged her shoulders, and said, “I tried.”

Gladmansaid he’s learned not to ask questions in that situation. During his13year career with the Salvation Army, each day has presented its ownset of unique challenges for Gladman. This holiday season has been nodifferent. An influx of people requesting assistance for the very firsttime has severely taxed the resources of Gladman and his staff. Oneweek before Christmas, Gladman pointed out that seven of the 18 singlewomen staying at the Salvation Army shelter off Trade Street inWinston-Salem had never been homeless before and five of the 18 had never requested government assistance. “Thatperson is very difficult to serve — someone who’s never been in thesystem before. There’s a pride factor, there’s shock and there’s fear.They don’t know how the system can help them,” Gladman said.

It’sGladman’s job and the job of his case managers to figure out how tobest use the agency’s resources to assist its clients. On Dec. 18,Gladman’s position as the “go-to guy” became clear. Cranston Hargrove,a crisis intervention program case manager, presented Gladman a DukeEnergy bill from a client whose power had been shut off. Since theamount of the bill was over the $300 per-client limit, Gladman toldHargrove to persuade Duke Energy to add the reconnection fee to theclient’s next bill, to get the client’s power turned on immediately.Minutes later, Hargrove said Duke Energy agreed to the arrangement. Gladmanthen authorized a check from the Salvation Army for $300 and a $12check to be written on the Kate B. Reynolds Foundation account. PriscillaCooke, a mental-health and substance-abuse counselor, then knocked onGladman’s door. Cooke informed Gladman that a domestic violence shelterin Kernersville would not take one of their clients. Gladmanacknowledged the news and let forth a heavy sigh.

“We have a clientwith some domestic violence issues. We thought another shelter would bea better fit for her,” Gladman explained to a reporter. ThenRochelle Taylor, a financial assistance counselor, entered Gladman’soffice with an analysis of how efficiently his staff is working.Gladman said he sets benchmarks for his employees, and regularly checkstheir numbers to see if the system can be further streamlined. “Youhave to have some kind of standard but understand each situation isunique,” he said.

For example, Gladman knows that Taylor sees anaverage of 110 clients per week. So if she drops below 90 clients in aweek, “I know something’s up,” he said. Hargrove knocked again onGladman’s office door.

“I need you to call in the commitment,” he said.

Gladman picked up the phone and began speaking with a Duke Energycustomer service representative. Gladman turned on the charm, telling ahumorous anecdote about his daughter, Jasmine. “She was twoyears old December 8 and she thinks she’s the boss,” Gladman laughed.

Once Gladman ensured the client’s power would be restored, he thankedthe representative and hung up. He pointed out that everything he doesis focused on relationship maintenance both internally and externally.Tonya Hazlip, a shelter case manager, then entered Gladman’s officetotalk about her adventure picking up a load of Christmas toys donated toa shelter family. Hazlip said she took a van with the seats removed topick up the items, but it still wasn’t big enough to accommodate thelarger donated presents. She said a second truck had to be sent to makea shelter family’s Christmas a little brighter. Just two weeksprior, Gladman said he and case manager Stella Idahor had openlywondered if the agency could actually provide presents for its 73shelter residents this Christmas. And then the donations startedpouring in.

“That’s how God works,” he said.

Gladman said he felt Godcalling him to minister through the Salvation Army one summer in thelate 1990s during a rescue mission in North Dakota. “Ifelt like this is where I can help the most people,” he said.

Gladmancredits his parents, John and Pamela, with instilling in him a sense ofgratitude for his many blessings, and a powerful desire to givesomething back. Last fall Gladman threw his hat into the politicalring, making a bid for a seat on the Forsyth County Commissioners.Gladman said he was inspired by the observation that Forsyth’s homelessand working poor population did not have a voice on the council. “Itseemed other things are more important than representing that part ofsociety,” Gladman said.

Despite losing the race, Gladman said he stillhopes to affect positive change in the community by working within theframework of local politics. In the meantime, he’s got his hands fullwith his current responsibilities. The Salvation Army is the onlyemergency family shelter in Forsyth, and the agency has made a solemnpromise to never turn a family away. Despite the current recession, theagency is weathering the storm. The agency must not only survive, butthrive to fulfill its mission, Gladman said.

“Need knows no season,” headded.

A growing need

JoeRiggsbee of the Clemmons Food Pantry had just finished loading morethan 2,500 cans of donated food from students at Clemmons ElementarySchool into the back of a pickup truck. Suddenly, a student camerunning out of the building carrying a can of tuna.

“Wait, wait, wait!”the student exclaimed.

Riggsbee thanked thestudent for the donation and told the young man that can of food couldmake all the difference for a hungry family. The Christmasfood drive at Clemmons Elementary has become a tradition for the foodpantry, currently in its fifth year of existence. Several studentsposed for a photo sitting on the tailgate of one of two pickups loadeddown with canned goods. Then, Molly Dawson, a fourth grader,asked Joe’s wife, Linda, “What’s the real grand total?” “Go back toclass, Molly,” Linda, a teacher at the school, replied.

Riggsbeepondered how he might bottle the enthusiasm of students like Molly tohelp the less fortunate. All the classes at the school compete in theannual food drive for the distinction of being named school champion. Minuteslater, he then drove one of the two trucks to the pantry’s headquartersless than two miles away at Meadowbrook Mall in Clemmons. Riggsbee andseveral members from the Clemmons United Methodist Church started thefood pantry, which now serves more than 500 families a month. Riggsbeesaid the pantry has witnessed a 30-percent increase in demand for itsservices in the past year, but that’s nothing new.

“It’s grown at thatrate or better the past five years,” he said.

What’s so challengingthese days is the fact that donations to the Second Harvest Food Bankof Northwest North Carolinaare down 10 to 15 percent. That drop comes in the face of 41-percentincrease in demand at the food pantry, Riggsbee said.

Often, Riggsbeeand pantry manager Terry Jeans will travel to Second Harvest to findthe shelves bare, which forces them to pay retail prices to stock theirshelves. “Suddenly, we’re dealing with three-and-a-half timesthe cost,” Riggsbee said.

Tough economic times have taken a huge tollon food-bank donations around the country. Riggsbee pointed out that last month Bruce Springsteen lent his image to ads for a New Jersey food bank. It’s the first time Springsteen has ever allowed his image to be used for a non-profit organization. Riggsbeesaid federal donations of food are being cut back as well, which putslocal food pantries in an even tougher financial position. Jeans saidthe pantry used to get 98 percent of its food from Second Harvest. Thatnumber has now dropped to 45 percent. She attributes the reduction infood donations to Second Harvest taking on more clients in the pastyear. Clyde Fitzgerald, executive director of Second Harvest, said thefood bank serves more than 400 agency partners spanning an 18-countyarea. But on Dec. 18, Clemmons Elementary’s sizable donation made a bigdifference. After all the canned goods were placed on pantryshelves, Jeans emptied the contents of a cardboard box on a counter topand nearly 100 client folders spilled out. “That’s just one day’sworth,” she said. Jeans characterized the current demand as“incredible.” She said for the first time, the pantry isserving former clients that had not needed its services for severalyears. “We’re averaging spending more than $1,200 a week, and going to[food stores] two to three times a week,” she said. Riggsbee pointedout that food donations, volunteers and financial contributions comeprimarily from 10 to 12 churches in the Clemmons community, but onlyone in 10 families served by the pantry is actually from Clemmons. Inthe beginning, the pantry required only a handful of volunteers on fooddistribution days. Now, Jeans and Riggsbee help ensure that at leastnine volunteers are available for each shift. After five years, thepantry has amassed 300 volunteers with 20 new volunteers being trainedeach month. “For the longest time our biggest fear inoperating our pantry was volunteer burnout,” Riggsbee said. “Thevolunteers are the heart and soul of it. It’s our mission to help thosein need. It’s also a mission to give volunteers the opportunity to bewith other people.”

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