By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Three years ago, Crisis Control Ministry in Winston-Salem began giving families visiting its free food pantry a choice in selecting items for the two-week supply of food they collected.
And in March, the agency launched a new effort to help clients break their cycle of poverty by identifying those stuck in that cycle when they apply for emergency assistance and then teaming them with a case worker who connects them with resources they need to avoid future crises.
Both innovations helped the agency win a statewide award in October for nonprofit stewardship from the Raleigh-based N.C. Center for Nonprofits.
Formed in 1973 by Christian congregations and now supported by individuals, foundations, corporations and a diverse group of religious congregations, the agency is the largest provider of emergency assistance in Forsyth County, says Margaret Elliott, executive director.
“We help people provide for their basic life needs,” she says.
Operating with 18 employees, 550 volunteers and an annual budget of $2.2 million, the agency serves 20,000 people a year.
In addition to its food pantry, which provides a two-week supply of food to each of 6,000 people, half of whom are children, the agency also operates a free pharmacy and provides emergency financial assistance to help clients pay their housing and utility bills.
The pharmacy, which opened in 1986 and was the first state-licensed free pharmacy in North Carolina, provides free medicine to 2,000 patients a year.
In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the pharmacy filled over 26,000 prescriptions valued at over $2.1 million at an expense to the ministry of only $240,000.
In the same fiscal year, the agency paid $525,000 to landlords and mortgage lenders on behalf of over 1,300 families, and $266,000 to utility companies on behalf of 1,500 people.
The food pantry, located at the agency’s main office in Winston-Salem and at its satellite office in Kernersville, resembles a small grocery store: Families get a shopping cart and a list showing the number of items they can take.
But under the program instituted three years ago, families now select the items they want – worth $330 for a family of four.
For its new “Breaking the Cycle” program, supported with funds from a grant from Duke Energy, Crisis Control Ministry volunteers who interview prospective clients in need of emergency assistance look for people who are underemployed or habitually unemployed, or who need budgeting skills or have a history of dependency on social-service agencies.
From a pool of clients who meet those criteria, 25 families have enrolled in program, which pairs them with a case workers who helps them find resources they need to sustain themselves.
Now, the agency is talking to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, the Forsyth County Department of Social Services and a local congregation about teaming up to help eligible clients sign up for food stamps.
“We’re building relationships with our clients rather than doing for them,” says Elliott. “It’s my goal that we help people focus on their strengths and capitalize on them rather than on what they don’t have, so they won’t end up back in Crisis Control Ministry again.”