(Editor’s note: Catholics looking for ways to put faith into practice during Lent and beyond can get inspiration from others around the diocese working to make the world a better place in which to live. Each week during Lent we’ll profile projects, people and activities striving to make a difference.)
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DEWITT — DeWitt Referral and Services Center bustles with people sifting through items for purchase in the thrift shop, which also provides a food pantry for people in need. Michelle, a clerk, laughs with shoppers. Alicia Burken, the referral center’s director, shows off some new jewelry donations and a Jessica Simpson purse, with a retail value of $80 to $100. Items purchased in the thrift shop help fund the food pantry, which is overseen by an ecumenical board of directors.
Organized in 1974 by a small group of volunteers, the referral center initially responded to the needs of senior citizens for a congregate meal site, drop-in center and health clinic in this rural community of 5,300. DeWitt United Methodist Church provided space for the meal site in the early years. Since then, the referral center has expanded — both in membership and response to community needs.
The referral center primarily provides emergency food assistance and steers people in need of financial aid to churches and fellow agencies that can provide such help. Recipients must meet income guidelines and live within the Central Community School District (DeWitt, Welton, Grand Mound and Low Moor). Approximately 150 families per month receive help through the referral center which operates Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beginning in March, hours will be extended to one Saturday a month from 8 a.m. to noon to accommodate people’s schedules.
In addition, Burken plans to introduce “Seeds of Hope,” a program to encourage gardeners to donate fresh produce to the referral center. “Fruits and vegetables are things people don’t buy because they’re expensive,” she said.
Participating churches that serve the referral center represent Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, United Church of Christ and Evangelical Christians. Some churches make cash donations, including St. Joseph in DeWitt. Church and group donations total about $20,000 of the referral center’s $93,000 budget, said Burken, a member of the DeWitt parish who joined the staff as director Dec. 15.
“We work together in a way that supersedes denominations,” observed Deacon Mark Comer, of St. Joseph Parish, who serves on the referral center’s board. Denomination “is not a topic; it’s not an issue. We work together to make sure the needs are met. When we offer assistance it’s for anyone of any denomination or none.”
“The entire church community in DeWitt is pretty much involved,” added Burken. “We have a rotating schedule where all the churches take up food collections in the month of June and December. All do it. During the rest of the months, the churches donate on an alternating basis. So we try to have food coming in at all times. The churches also donate money toward the purchase of milk for students who qualify for the free lunch program.” A collaborative arrangement with Barnes Foodland in DeWitt ensures that individuals and families have access to milk through a voucher system. The referral center pays for the milk.
Burken has begun meeting with United Way and Clinton Referral Services to ensure that people’s needs are being met, not duplicated. She also plans to attend monthly meetings of the Council of Social Agencies, a consortium of social service providers in Clinton County.
“We anticipate we’re going to continue to improve our relationship with other service providers in the area so we’re certain we’re not replicating services and that we’re providing what’s needed,” Deacon Comer said. The addition of Burken as one of four, part-time staffers is a real plus, he added, because of her background in business and grant writing. “She has skills we haven’t even touched yet. She brings a world of resources to our little board and the people we serve.”
“We’re trying to run it as a business because that’s what it is — a small, nonprofit business and we’re trying to make it easier for those who need help to get help,” said Dennis Mumm, a member of DeWitt United Methodist Church and president of the referral center’s board of directors.
DeWitt Referral and Services Center statistics
Number of people served:
November 2014: 116 families
December 2014: Nearly 100 families
(The center was closed Dec. 23-Jan. 5)
January 2015: 128 families
Annual budget: $93,000. Last year, United Way contributed about $17,000; another $20,000 comes from area churches and groups. Other funding sources are the Clinton County Board of Supervisors, the City of DeWitt, private donations and sales from the thrift center.