Economic downturns have hit many families who live in the northeast corner of Alabama hard.
"These families have had to take low paying jobs, often 45-60 miles away, yet still cannot make ends meet," says Tanya Rains, director of Upper Sand Mountain Parish Family Services (#722760).
The family center is a cooperative effort of eight United Methodist churches in two Alabama counties. Service teams come to the parish throughout the year to help with ongoing ministries.
The center annually provides family care and emergency services to about 4,500 residents. The parish provides food and school supplies, helps pay for prescriptions and utilities, provides a toy store at Christmas and operates Gardens of Plenty – a program that provides free seeds and fertilizer for families to grow their own gardens. The center also houses a storm shelter.
"Our families are hardworking, committed to staying on the land of their families and often find it very difficult to seek help," says Rains, one of three paid staff members. "Simple problems like missing a day from work due to a sick child or having a shortened paycheck due to a holiday can put families in an economic crisis," unable to buy food or pay utility bills.
The center operates "on a point system that allows choice of items by the family rather than items being handed out to individuals," she adds. "We want them to know they are not beggars, but rather children of God when they come to us."
Each year, the parish partners with other churches to build Heart and Hand Houses for low-income families. The 1,000-square-foot, passive solar houses are sold for the cost of materials. There is no charge for labor.
"To date, 46 houses have been built and 25 families now own their own homes," says Rains. "These homes greatly improve (their) quality of life. Some were previously living with dirt floors." Eighty percent of the families now living in the homes have been at or below poverty level income.
A lifelong member of the parish, Rains says the family center also helped create four local thrift stores, which provide employment opportunities and affordable clothing and items. Without the stores, residents would have to travel long distances to shop.
Heather Peck Travis, freelance writing living in Glasgow, Ky.
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This article was originally published in the November-December 2013 issue of Interpreter, www.interpretermagazine.org. Interpreter, the official ministry magazine of The United Methodist Church, is a publication of United Methodist Communications.