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Family mission

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By Marion Blackburn

GRIMESLAND, N.C. — When Bishop James Lot Smith Spencer made a commitment to “Feed the poor,” his children accepted the mission as well.

Today, the First Born Community Development Center, directed by Smith’s daughter, Carolyn Smith Spencer, serves that pledge with monthly food giveaways for people in the rural, impoverished Pitt County community of Grimesland.

The center is attached to the First Born Holy Church, which Bishop Smith founded in 1969.

Each month, First Born helps feed about 500 families, but uncertain funding means that may not be possible in the months ahead, says Carolyn Smith Spencer.

“I never asked for a salary, just to pay the light bill. But it’s a struggle,” she says. “You can’t have an agency without paying people to work for you.”

First Born began in 1992 with a simple goal of providing food for the poor.

At full capacity, it offered food three Saturdays a month, including one distribution for people with diabetes.

Now it offers food only once a month for the community, while the diabetic food giveaway has continued without interruption.

First Born operates mostly with volunteers. It formerly paid Smith a modest salary, but that has been discontinued.

The group needs about $4,700 each month to pay for delivery trucks, utilities and other expenses.

First Born in 2007 will lose part of its funding from United Way of Pitt County because with its limited staff it was unable to fulfill some United Way requirements, says Gwendolyn Smith, president of First Born’s board and another of James Smith’s daughters.

So as the agency reduces services in the short term, it is planning for more stability.

“Our focus for the months ahead is to tap into some of the grants that we might qualify for,” Gwendolyn Smith says. “In some ways it’s good for us that we are in this situation, because it’s showing us how strong we are as an organization.”

In the meantime, her sister, Carolyn Spencer, who trained in cosmetology, has returned to working in a hair salon while continuing to operate the First Born Center.

“Carolyn had to look for another job, but she said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make it through,’” Gwendolyn Smith said.

First Born has 11 board members and 40 to 50 volunteers who staff the food distribution each month.

The agency is funded through private donations, many of them monthly individual commitments. Churches in the area have also supported First Born.

The Smith family of 16 was raised helping others, Gwendolyn Smith says.

“That’s the way we grew up,” she says. “My father instilled in us that we were to love our neighbor. My father had this vision for as long as I knew him, to help our neighbors and feed the poor.

“A lot of times you live next to someone and you don’t know what their situation is. When he decided to create a little pantry, Carolyn started looking for ways to bring in some money to support what our father began.”

Smith and her sister completed the requirements to establish First Born as a nonprofit agency. It has been a member agency of the Food Bank of North Carolina since then.

These days, Carolyn Spencer says, the agency serves nearly 2,000 clients.

The center also delivers to the home-bound, handicapped and elderly and offers clothing and youth programs.

The monthly food giveaway for people with diabetes is sponsored by a grant from the Pitt Memorial Hospital Foundation.

First Born will continue to receive some United Way funds through contribution designated for the agency by donors.

Those designations last year totaled more than $20,000.

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