CHARLES TOWN — Jefferson County Community Ministries is going to work.
The agency recently adopted a policy that requires that those who take part in its programs will also have to participate in the self-improvement and community services opportunities the organization offers.
Community Ministries, which runs primarily on community donations and volunteer labor, has always offered such opportunities, but they were never before required in order to receive assistance.
JCCM Executive Director Bob Shefner said the agency’s volunteers will be challenged with “finding polite ways, diplomatic ways to say, ‘You’ve got to get a job. And we can help you get started.’”
Clients seeking help will also be asked for proof of their income and family size during the initial interview. In the past interviewers did ask about the client’s income and family size during the intake process, but no proof was necessary.
Jefferson County Community Ministries services include a clothing closet, a food bank and financial assistance.
Shefner said the changes are the next step in achieving the organization’s mission.
“Our mission, whenever it was developed some years ago, said that we’re supposed to provide emergency assistance on a limited scale. And we’ve been doing that really well, I think, for 30-some years,” he said. “But then it goes on to say that we want to help people find permanent solutions. We’ve not done that.”
The proof of income and family size helps Community Ministries’ volunteers better understand their clients’ situations, so they can suggest programs that would best help them become more self-sufficient. The agency offers classes in budgeting, couponing and cooking quick, healthy meals around a tight budget. Soon it hopes to offer an employment training class sponsored and conducted by American Public University.
Community Ministries’ two biggest neighborhood service opportunities, the Ranson Work Project and the Community Garden in Ranson, were developed in the past year.
The Ranson Work Project was initially intended for clients who participated in the homeless shelter. Shefner said Charles Town and Ranson city leaders have been concerned with the homeless population wandering the streets, especially in wintertime. This project kills two birds with one stone: giving people something to do indoors and helping keep public areas clean.
The city of Ranson offers community service projects on properties owned by the city as well as free lunch and showers to volunteers who need them. Currently, clients are cleaning up the Ranson Civic Center and doing work in the Senior Center.
Shefner said he anticipates some work will be done on area parks as well, and that the program will expand beyond just cleaning.
The value of the program isn’t just in taking care of the community, it’s in getting JCCM’s clients working, Shefner said.
“It also gives people an opportunity to recover, regain their work ethic,” Shefner said. “And they begin to redevelop, practice the skills they may have had.”
The Community Garden on West Third Avenue was started last year and is used year-round to grow produce for distribution in Community Ministries’ food pantry. Last year it brought in 650 pounds of produce.
One hope for the garden is to not just feed clients but also to teach people about sustainable urban agriculture – growing tomatoes in straw bales, for example.
Volunteering in the garden accomplishes two things, said Shefner. It puts clients to work and encourages them to give back, but it also presents an opportunity for someone to develop a passion for growing. The garden’s coordinators get consistent helpers while those interested develop the skills of the trade.
Regular volunteers in either the Ranson Work Project or the Community Garden can even earn work references to help them get jobs.
While Shefner expects some tension at the onset of these new policies, he hopes the clients will see them as the self-improvement opportunities they are rather than obstacles to getting needed help.
“I want to believe that more people are going to be positive and are going to recognize the invitation to participate with us in their betterment,” he said. “And there are going to be some people who have gotten used to just coming here regularly and may not want to do anything different. So the trick is to find the people who can’t do anything different and tailor a response to them.”
Shefner said the change has not been easily made; circumstances have required it.
“The reality is that the needs are growing faster than the resources to meet the needs,” Shefner said. “There’s not an unlimited pile of money that comes in every year. So we’ve just got to be smarter.”