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Elk Garden ministry goes beyond meeting basic needs

Paul's* little girl is sick. He says he's barely slept, worrying about her high fever, and he has a complicated story about how the hospital sent her home too soon with the wrong medicine which made her sicker.

"If she was that bad off, it looks like they would help her," says Paul. More details spill out about how his other child is sick, too. Medicine and groceries are sorely needed at home.

Elk Garden School Community Ministry.

The good news is, Paul came to the right place.

"Paul, if you will write your name here, we'll put you on the prayer list," says the Rev. Brooke Atchley, director of the Elk Garden School Community Ministry. "The next time you go to the hospital, ask for the social worker and she'll call me so that we can help."

Patiently, while chatting with Paul about his family, Atchley connects him with a volunteer who will help him select food from the pantry. She hands a gift card to another volunteer with instructions for buying medicines at the store. Then she asks, "Paul, have you met my husband?"

Less than three years after Atchley and community members transformed a 100-year-old school into a ministry center, it's widely known in northern Russell County that people can go to Elk Garden School Community Ministry to get some of their basic needs met.

       Thrift store volunteers.

The ministry center is more than just a place to get food, clothes, furniture, utility assistance, or education, however. "The beauty of the way we do this is, we get to know folks," says Atchley.

Atchley is a deacon and Church and Community Worker who knows her stuff about the needs of the community she serves.

"We reach a segment of the population that's hidden and forgotten," she says. "One of the things we battle here is isolation, so we do anything we can to connect people."

Elk Garden School Community Ministry is totally supported by church and individual donations (75 percent) and grants (25 percent). About 60 percent of church groups that provide money, goods and volunteer work are Holston Conference members; the other 40 percent are from other United Methodist conferences or denominations, Atchley said.

In the meantime, Elk Garden is growing and offering a multitude of ministries. In addition to a community garden and a nursing-home ministry, Elk Garden partners with county agencies to offer diabetes classes, drug-prevention "game nights," and cooking classes. This summer, Camp in the Community, a program of Holston Conference Camp and Retreat Ministries, will return to Elk Garden to offer a week-long experience for local children.

In 2017, 40,000 food items were distributed to 314 families, after the Elk Garden food pantry's grand opening in March. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, volunteers said they had run out of milk after distributing 50 gallons in one day. The pantry is now up to serving 220 families per month, often leaving the pantry shelves bare, Atchley said.

*Paul is not his real name.

Annette Spence, The Call, Holston Annual Conference

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