A Season for Sharing
Urban Ministries of Wake County serves needy neighbors year-round, but donations are in shorter supply in the summer.
by Carol Wills
Photography by Rich Cox
It was the winter of 1981 when two homeless men in our area died as a result of hypothermia. This tragic circumstance was the impetus for people who were concerned about the plight of homeless people to form Urban Ministries of Raleigh. Initially, the founders of Urban Ministries met in the basement of Edenton Street United Methodist Church.
Since then, the organization has acquired partners of many denominations and groups—and today the organization, now known as Urban Ministries of Wake County, is a thriving community of 40 paid staff and more than 1,300 volunteers.
The positive impact of Urban Ministries’ outreach is widespread and meaningful: Through its welcoming food pantry, the nonprofit provides groceries to last a full week for as many as 50 families each weekday. Last year, its volunteers distributed 270 tons of food. However, more food and more volunteers are always needed—especially during the summer months when donations and volunteer availability are reduced because of vacations and distracted schedules.
Last year, Urban Ministries’ food pantry became the largest client-choice pantry in Wake County. Previously, clients of the pantry had been given packages of food that were assembled by volunteers, but there were problems with that arrangement, since it didn’t take into account the recipients’ food preferences. Now, with the free-choice system in the food pantry, individuals and families experiencing food insecurity can select whatever they want to eat from the open shelves. Chill-and-fill tables offer choices of fresh produce and frozen meat, and about 40 percent of the food that families select at the food pantry are taken from these tables. It provides an opportunity for the clients to eat healthier, fresher meals, and giving people a choice has also eliminated waste, since people can select the foods they really like.
The self-service pantry—open Monday through Friday, from 9 am to 12:30 pm—is staffed by one employee and eight to 10 volunteers and provides a resource where its guests are welcome and maintain the dignity of independent shopping. The face-to-face interactions create an opportunity for friendly conversations and an exchange of recipes. In addition, there are gardens outside, created and maintained by several retired men—some of them medical volunteers, who periodically exchange their white coats for overalls, the better to dig, plant, and weed. Providing healthy food is especially important in the summer when children who typically receive free or reduced-price meals at school don’t have that food resource.
Another need that Urban Ministries is meeting is providing free medical care for nearly 2,000 patients each year. The Open Door Clinic is staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and lab techs. Patients can be referred to specialists at no charge, thanks to community partnerships, and in-house mental health counseling is also available. Lab work is done on-site at Urban Ministries, and Duke Raleigh Hospital serves as the partner for processing lab results. In addition, the Open Door Clinic remains the only free and charitable clinic in Wake County with an on-site, fully licensed pharmacy, which provides assistance and guidance to people who need help in staying on their medications—a vital service when it enables those individuals to maintain their jobs and keep their families together.
The clinic serves people with low incomes and no insurance, a growing population where the need is so acute that there is a long waiting list for people with health problems. Medical referrals help serve the needs of patients who are seriously or chronically ill. WakeMed partners with the organization to help individuals who visit emergency rooms frequently to find help for chronic disease management.
Urban Ministries also provides safe shelter in the Helen Wright Center for Women, which serves women over 18 years of age, without children in their custody, who are in need of a place to stay. The center, which can accommodate as many as 36 women each night, provides warm food and genuine care. Twenty-four beds are dedicated for emergency shelter, where women can stay for up to two weeks while caseworkers help them connect with services in the community. The remaining beds are for women who are involved in Urban Ministries’ three-month program that aids them in saving money to be able to move into appropriate housing.
Another partner, Wake Tech, sends instructors to teach the women skills such as interviewing techniques, résumé writing, and budgeting for expenses. Congregational and civic groups also provide games and activities to help the women—many of whom are victims of domestic violence—find outlets to relax and have fun. Urban Ministries’ Helen Wright Center program has a 68 percent success rate in helping its guests leave with a lease and move forward in their lives.