Congregation reaches out in tough times

Sheron Sumner
Sheron Sumner

Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Three years ago, with the recession starting to take hold and the number of hungry people in Greensboro growing, Sheron Sumner proposed that First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro launch a feeding program one night a week.

Last year, that Hot Dish and Hope ministry served 16,000 meals, or roughly 130 to 150 a night every Tuesday and Thursday, a total that grew to 175 to 200 this past summer.

The ministry also has grown to a collaborative effort involving 10 local churches, with First Presbyterian providing the kitchen and food-service director who prepares the meals, and the other churches contributing $200 to $5,000 a year each, and their members making individual donations.

Sumner, a retired nutrition professor from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and long-time church member who as a volunteer directs the feeding program, also spearheaded the launch of an emergency-shelter program provided by First Presbyterian and six other churches.

Launched three years ago after the financial markets collapsed, the initiative is coordinated by Greensboro Urban Ministry and can house roughly 110 adults a night, including 85 men and 25 women.

First Presbyterian, for example can house up to 22 men, who sleep on cots provided by the Red Cross in an empty room in the church basement that served as an activity room.

Church volunteers manage and lead the effort, which also feeds the men dinner and breakfast snacks provided by volunteers.

Sumner says the outreach efforts have made volunteers from the church’s 3,300-member congregation more aware of community needs.

“The process of working with the homeless and those who needed help transformed lives and created a movement in our church,” she says. “The programs and ministries have put faith into action. People are living their faith.”

Last spring, the church created Reach Out First, a nonprofit that acts as an umbrella for the outreach ministries and seeks grants to support the work.

Those ministries include a clothing closet, launched about the same time as the shelter program, that provides donated clothing two nights a month to roughly 50 to 60 people each night, when meals also are served.

Now, Reach Out First has launched a job-readiness program modeled on StepUP Ministry in Raleigh, an interfaith nonprofit housed at White Memorial Presbyterian Church that provides about 700 clients and their families with job training, vocational training and job-skills development.

“We’re giving people warm shelter, a hot meal and clothes, but what difference does this make next week in changing a life?,” says Sumner, who retired from UNCG in the late 1980s after 25 years of teaching, then worked for seven years as a regional vice president for the Southeast United Dairy Association and later worked for four years at the School of Nursing at UNC-Chapel Hill, directing National Cancer Institute research studies on prostate and breast cancer.

Of 18 people who participated in Reach Out First’s inaugural one-week job-readiness training, 14 completed the program and six of them now have jobs.

Early next year, the program will expand by offering a year-long life-skills program to graduates of the job-readiness program, offering classes once a week in personal development, financial literacy, relationships and careers.

Reach Out First, housed in a building First Presbyterian owns across the street from the church, has raised $40,000 through grants, plus additional contributions from individuals, and is in the process of hiring a program manager, says Sumner, who serves as volunteer executive director and board chair.

“We learned we could have a winter shelter and help them get housing when the winter ends,” she says, “but if they didn’t have a job, they can’t keep that housing.”

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