Pitt County nonprofit a family affair

Carolyn Spencer
Carolyn Spencer

Todd Cohen

GRIMESLAND, N.C. – In 1975, when Carolyn Spencer was a freshman at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, her late father, Bishop James Lot Smith of First Born Holy Church of America, told her he had had a vision.

“He said the lord told him to feed the poor,” Spencer says.

In 1992, she says, that vision came to life with the formation of First Born Community Development Center.

Operating with an annual budget of roughly $30,000 donated by the church, which her father had founded in the tiny Pitt County town of Grimesland, volunteers initially would drive an old farm truck to Raleigh to buy food at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

After the return trip to Grimesland, which has a population of about 500 people, volunteers would box the food, including canned goods donated by local churches, which would feed roughly 250 people a month.

Today, First Born serves roughly 500 families a month, or 1,500 individuals, in 21 rural communities in Pitt County, says Spencer, who serves as the organization’s volunteer executive director.

Operating with an annual budget of $200,000 and only one paid employee, an administrative assistant, First Born counts on volunteers and on contributions from private donors, United Way giving designated for First Born, and support from local churches and foundations.

The group distributes food boxes twice a month to people who cannot afford it and to homebound seniors, provides nutrition education and a nutritious breakfast to children twice a month, and runs a clothing bank that gives away clothes.

Using a moving van it purchased with funds from a grant it received in 2000 from UPS, the group now picks up food at the Greenville warehouse of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

With diabetes affecting nearly 300 people in the communities it serves, Spencer says, First Born receives funds for its diabetes education program from Pitt County Memorial Hospital.

And the Pitt County Health Foundation funds the group’s nutrition education program for kids.

Spencer, who did not continue her studies at A&T after her freshman year but eventually studied cosmetology and worked part-time as a cosmetologist in Greenville and full-time as a teacher’s assistant in the Pitt County schools working with students with behavior disorders, says giving back was an important lesson she learned at an early age from her parents.

“Daddy was the foundation of the family,” she says. “Mother was the reinforcement.”

As a little girl, she says, she would help her father as he sold fish from the trunk of his car in rural Pitt County.

“If he got to a family that didn’t have money, he would give them fish,” she says. “It said to me that money wasn’t everything. It was about helping people.”

Her mother, who kept a small garden, “would always give,” Spencer says. “Our house was always filled with people who needed a meal.”

Smith, who died in 2002 at age 76, had 17 children, including two from a first marriage and 11 from a second marriage, to Spencer’s mother, who died in 1991 at age 61.

He also raised the four children of his second wife’s twin sister after she died.

The extended family now totals roughly 230 members, most of them living within a 30-mile radius.

Many family members volunteer and contribute to First Born.

Serving with Spencer on the group’s board are her sister, Gwendolyn Smith, and her brother, Virgil D. Smith Sr., the pastor at First Born Holy Church, as well as Rick McDaniel, an operating-room orthopedic nurse at Pitt County Memorial Hospital.

“It’s turned into a family affair,” says McDaniel, who began volunteering at the organization about seven years ago.

It was late in the year, in the operating room, and he asked the surgeon he was working with to suggest a charity he might support with a donation.

The surgeon immediately suggested First Born, which the surgeon’s Greenville church supports with volunteers.

“‘They certainly want your money, but they need your back more than anything'” to lift boxes and deliver them, McDaniel says the surgeon told him.

Giving is what First Born is all about, McDaniel says.

“We give with our hearts,” he says. “We try and incorporate the clients into our extended family in how we treat them.”

Spencer says giving also is what her family is all about.

“We were programmed to believe that it was more blessed to give then it was to receive,” Spencer says. “Don’t worry about whether you get any praise. Just do the right thing.”

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