Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Giving Dignity to the Needy

Erika Flint, Watertown Urban Mission's executive director

By Nicole Caldwell for TruthAtlas

WATERTOWN, NEW YORK–A man walks through a set of doors next to an archway with a sign: “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread.” As he gets a shopping cart, he’s joined by an employee who points out new products, and calls his attention to posters depicting portion allotments based on family size. The man pulls a bag of rice, a bottle of juice, a loaf of fresh-baked French bread, shampoo, produce from a local garden, and a can of tomatoes. He is walked to the front of the store, checks out, and takes his bags of groceries home to his family.

This is the new face of poverty: a dignity-driven, choice-based system encouraging individuals to take charge, make smart food choices, and usher in better choices and a better life. This is a world without shame for falling on hard times. This is the Watertown Urban Mission, a nonprofit organization located on Factory Street in the heart of Watertown, New York.

“My mother was one of nine children,” says Erika Flint, 33, who has served as the Mission’s executive director since 2011. “She raised me on her own. And though we occasionally received aid through government programs, most of our help came from churches, neighbors, and family members. The help wasn’t obvious. It didn’t feel like we had no money, or that we were in need.”
That experience is what made the job at Watertown Urban Mission resonate so strongly for Erika. “We provide help in a way that inspires people,” she says. “They don’t stand in a line and become a number.”

Erika Flint stands inside the Watertown Urban Mission’s food pantry. Photo by Nicole Caldwell
The Watertown Urban Mission creates a network of local churches, organizations, businesses, and individuals to help people through difficult times in Watertown and surrounding Jefferson County. The organization was created by three ministers in 1967 interested in banding together churches of all denominations to serve neighbors in need. In 1968, 15 churches pledged their commitment to the Mission—a number that today has ballooned to more than 40 county-wide. The Mission’s programming offers food, clothing, shelter, medicine, vital supplies, and counseling in order to empower people to get back on their feet. None of this assistance is cash-based. Instead, the Mission offers specific items and help to individuals in order to target the exact source of need.

There are six major programs Erika oversees at the Mission: the Bridge Program, a court-ordered alternative to incarceration for those facing legal issues because of alcohol or drug abuse; the Christian Care Center, offering fellowship through daily devotions, bible study, and prayer; Critical Needs, providing emergency assistance such as medications, diapers, furniture, or home repair; the Food Pantry, serving more than 500 families a five-day supply of food every month; HEARTH, preventing and addressing homelessness; and the Impossible Dream Thrift Store, selling donated goods and clothing to the public at affordable prices.

Erika grew up in Croghan, New York, about 30 miles east of Watertown. “It was a very small community,” she says. “When I was little, I thought nothing of going to my Uncle Dennis and Aunt Darlene’s house and having them pull food out of their refrigerator saying, ‘Oh, we bought too much of this,’ or ‘Here, take this home with you.’ They gave us food without making it seem like they felt sorry for us—they didn’t do it like we were starving. And we weren’t—we had this support system.”

Now married with two children of her own, Flint pays her childhood experience forward every day at the Mission. “Because most of our funding comes from private sources, we can do what makes sense,” she says. “It’s not a deficit-based approach. At the Mission if you are working, or are trying to get an education, we can help fill in the gaps where you need it to keep you going in the right direction.”

The Watertown Urban Mission negates the Catch-22 of poverty in the United States. Instead of cutting checks or mailing out food vouchers, the Mission works face-to-face with individuals and families. They might help with specific car repairs so its owner can get to work; provide business attire for a job interview; provide medications for someone who can’t afford them; or ensure a child has school supplies. The Mission empowers people to take responsibility over their own progress. For example, a person who works and is the legal guardian of at least one child is eligible to receive transportation support. The Mission may buy a car worth several thousand dollars and sell it to a person for $600, payable through monthly installments of $50. “We could just give the cars away,” Erika says. “But instead, we enable people to buy their own.”

One woman had a water pump fail this winter at her home. Without money to buy a new one, she was forced to melt snow for drinking, bathing, and dishwashing. “She had no resources,” Erika explains, “but she owned her own home. Her husband had died in that home—she had lived there so long and she didn’t want to move.” The Mission wanted to help. Instead of giving the woman cash or even a gift certificate to a hardware store, “We bought her a water pump and had someone install it for her. And in the meantime, we coordinated with a church to bring her fresh gallons of water.” Putting faces to the aid and targeting specific places where help is needed, Flint says, eliminates the risk of mismanagement—for the givers and the receivers.

One man who went through the Bridge Program as an alternative to incarceration said this about the Mission: “This program didn’t just give me my life back; it gave my daughter her dad back.” A mother and daughter going through the Critical Needs program had this conversation within earshot of staff: “Why are we here?” the daughter asked. The mother replied: “So someday you don’t have to be.”

These stories—and countless others—understandably inspire a lot of giving. All donations, no matter their size, are celebrated; but one recent gift was particularly noteworthy.

KB Global Care, the charitable arm of New York Air Brake Company’s parent company, the Germany-based Knorr-Bremse Group, awarded the Watertown Urban Mission $205,000 in 2014 toward the nonprofit’s campaign seeking $2 million to revitalize its Factory Street location and establish an endowment. “This is the first grant from them to be dispersed in this continent,” Erika says. The grant, which pushed the Mission past its campaign goal a full 11 months ahead of schedule, ensures renovation of the food pantry and thrift shop, upgraded safety measures, improved privacy in consultation areas, the creation of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and lifts, and much-needed renovations such as insulated windows. Unsurprisingly, what grabbed the attention of those determining grant recipients was this: The Mission helps people get back on their feet so they can take care of themselves.

“The funding will allow us to give people a space they can feel proud of when they walk in,” Erika says. “This works with our intention of allowing people to do for themselves in order to maintain a sense of pride.”

Asked to come up with the most difficult part of this work, she shrugs. “I don’t think there’s anything difficult about this job,” she says with a smile, “except always wanting to do more.”

Want to Get Involved?

The Watertown Urban Mission brings together about 40 member churches with local community-minded organizations, businesses and individuals to help people through difficult times with programs that feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, visit the imprisoned, give aid to the sick, and more. With generous donor and volunteer support, the Mission helps people rise above their circumstances and in turn, this strengthens our community as a whole. LEARN MORE

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Aboard the Hound

Image from transportationfortomorrow.com.
 “There are many ways of leaping, the essential being to leap.”
-Albert Camus
Originally published at Greenback Gravy
  Patrick turns his head in my direction as the Greyhound bus quietly bumps its way through the middle of Texas. It's night, I don't know what time. Interior bus lights are turned down to a dim glow. The low hum of the engine has lulled me mostly to sleep with my eyes partly open; but I pick up my head when I see this man across the aisle pivot to face me.

"I like Schlitz." He says it like he's answering a question; as if we've been mid-conversation and he is just now punctuating a previous point. I stare at him blankly. Waiting. "My family lives in a trailer," he continues, "so I’m already white trash." Ronnie, Patrick’s friend sitting behind him, chuckles. "If you can fall off a horse without spilling your beer,” Patrick says, as if by explanation, "you’re alright." He shrugs and turns toward his window, considering the pitch-black world outside.

It was 2003. The stretch from Springfield, Mass., to Austin would be the first leg of my 60-day Greyhound bus pass. This initial voyage would take a little more than two-and-a-half days. Almost 48 hours in, it seemed I'd been gone for months. The people I met across 10 states—a woman in the Cleveland station who didn't mince words and said she prided herself on her spunk; a Texan who called himself “Flying Tiger” because of a tattoo bearing that likeness on his calf; a woman from Russia specializing in escort services; and a man who called me a "true child of God"—were enough to make it seem I’d traversed entire countries.

Greyhound Bus Lines offers a dramatic deal to anyone who can stomach it: Discovery Passes, sold in increments of 7, 15, 30 or 60 days, allow a traveler to get on and off the bus as many times as he or she would like, no strings attached, within the allotted time. If you’re thrifty (and, inherently, such a traveler is likely to be), you can even find all overnight Greyhound routes so money can be saved on lodging. The 9:15 p.m. bus from Phoenix to San Diego is such a trip. Ditto for the 11:30 p.m. route from Seattle to Missoula.

Being 21 and hitting the road on my own for two months was a decision most people couldn’t understand. Buses are uncomfortable. They run late. They smell. Luggage gets lost. Unsavory characters abound. It takes forever to get from point A to B. What if something horrible happened to me? It's not safe for a woman to travel alone.

And so on.

To me, though, the notion was thrilling. Criss-crossing the country by bus sounded like freedom. All those characters, savory and non, and hearing their stories would only mean more fodder for my writingand more meat for my character. Potential for trouble only meant the adventure would be that much more memorable.

I got the Greyhound “bug”—an appropriate term—when I was 19. Three girlfriends and I felt a road trip was in order after our first year at a tiny school in Amherst, Mass. I’d traveled to St. Augustine and back via Greyhound the winter of that year, and knew doing the whole country by bus would be an unforgettable adventure. My friends and I plotted the route carefully, and managed to get a ride out to Scottsdale in a friend's car so we could get more mileage out of our 15-day passes. Many people have done the country by car, and having this first experience of driving from my family’s home in Northern New Jersey nonstop with Leticia, Aethena, Mira and Nick to Scottsdale certainly had its perks. We could park at the most tantalizing trucker’s stop and fill up on food. When we saw a sign for Little Rock, we could pull over to the fireman’s festival downtown. And we could have stories, like that funny time, 30 hours into the trip, with that thunderstorm in the middle of Texas when we ended up on the old Route 66 and couldn’t find our way, and someone ended up crying and we had to pull over for a few hours to rest.

But it wasn’t until Nick dropped us off at the Phoenix Greyhound station that the real adventure began. Within hours we were plowing through the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning, playing a trivia game with total strangers in the back of the bus. It was then I realized what it meant to see this country. I understood, for just a moment, that the whole experience of getting from point A to point B was just as important as what waited for me at my destination. Since then, I’ve completed more than a half-dozen cross-country trips by Greyhound in increasing increments of time. Each adventure was different, but the bus was constant. And now, looking back, it seems as if it was all one continuous ride. Indeed, does one ever actually “get off” of the metaphorical Greyhound bus?

When his apprentice wants to know which route he should choose, the Yaqui brujo answers: “Any path is only a path. All paths are the same: they [all] lead nowhere.” The only important question you must ask is: “Does this path have a heart?” If it has a heart for you, then dare to follow it.
-Sheldon Kopp, “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!”

Of course, not everything on the Greyhound was fun and games. My luggage disappeared several times. Missed connections stranded me in stations, forcing me to sit and wait. I’ve squished four people into a three-seat row for hours at a time, survived sitting in the back of the bus next to a bathroom with a broken door latch, and been stuck next to more than my fair share of screaming babies.

The bus left without me one morning in Cincinnati after a routine 15-minute stop. I beat my hands against the glass of a locked station door and screamed while my chariot pulled away. Luggage, laptop, and journal: gone, gone, gone. I managed to reach a sympathetic Greyhound worker on the telephone in Cleveland who agreed to meet my bus outside as it arrived. She and her employees, I learned later, stopped someone as he walked off the bus with my computer. The journal was gone forever.

A few weeks later, an evening bus out of Seattle got delayed on account of someone with a body odor problem, according to the loudspeaker announcement. We were evacuated, lined up in a row, and individually sniffed by someone who was likely interning at Greyhound, unpaid, after graduating from Harvard with a business degree.

“She drank from a bottle called DRINK ME
And up she grew so tall
She ate from a plate called TASTE ME
And down she shrank so small
And so she changed, while other folks
Never tried nothin’ at all.”
-Shel Silverstein, “Alice”

So many stories take place while crowded in an uncomfortable seat; it’s natural sometimes to overlook what went on between stretches of highway, Dairy Queen rest stops and the occasional breakdown.

I got off the bus in Nashville in 2002 for what I imagined would be a few hours of aimless wandering. In fact, there happened to be a huge protest going on at the capital building against a new tax bill. My boyfriend and I spent the afternoon hanging out with total strangers on the capital’s steps debating politics and talking philosophy with strangers. Walking Nashville’s main drag afterward, I met a mother-daughter singing duo called the Pretty Patriots. They shared their story; then the little girl sang me a song before we parted ways.

A bus brought me to St. Augustine, where I met my two favorite street musicians, Frank and Mary Schaap. Seven years later, I'd run into Frank in New York City's Central Park, still crooning away.

There was Keith the Outlaw and, the following summer, Harley Sergeant, riding their wheelchairs along San Diego’s boardwalk, remembering times when there was more to do than be a bum on the beach. Their stories taught me that if I’m ever lost, I can go somewhere like that to commune with new friends, score free meals at the temple around the corner, and reinvent myself.

I remember a story I heard when I was a little girl in Sunday school. It’s from the book of Luke, and outlines a scene in which Jesus watches people put offerings into a temple’s treasury. The richest of the lot drop their gifts in, paying little mind. Then an impoverished widow puts two small coins with a combined value of about two-fifths of one cent into the offering. “Of a truth I say unto you,” Jesus says, “that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all.” In giving when she had so little, the story goes, she gave everything.

The story came to mind one day while I was on-board the bus, doing one of my straight-shots from Portland to Manhattan. I thought of Rock ’n’ Roll Randy, a homeless man I'd met during my travels. He offered me all he had—a pair of mittens—after we'd only spoken a few minutes. "You just have to do one thing for me," he said.

"I got two questions for you."
"Okay. Go ahead."
“You think I ever had it normal?” He asked me, all seriousness.
“Yeah, I did. 1964. You think I’ve had fun since then?”
“I’m sure that you have.”
“Rock ’n’ Roll Randy,” he answered. “Portland, Oregon.”

I remembered Arnie, a Yurok Indian who picked me up hitchhiking along Northern California's Highway 101. I'd eventually learn about his conservation work with his tribe’s fisheries department, and he'd feed me and house me and later send me home with gifts for my family. I've gone back to visit Arnie and his family and friends almost a dozen times. Each time, he provides for me however he can—even though he has so few material things. He is a friend in the barest, truest sense of the word.

He has never asked me for anything in return.

Similar experiences happened every day with people I sat next to on the Greyhound. They shared their stories, revealing themselves in the most human way any of us could.

These things aren’t much. The people you meet onand off—the proverbial bus are often people you never talk to ever again. But sometimes for a brief moment, they, with nothing of their own, offer everything. There is a lesson here. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve gotten it yet.