ROSEDALE, Va. (May 18, 2018) -- 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.
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.
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.”
FAITH IN ACTION
The median household income in Russell County is $35,045, according to Atchley’s research through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Virginia’s median income is $65,015; the U.S. poverty threshold is $37,287.
Almost 62 percent of Russell County students receive free or reduced lunch. Fewer than 15 percent of adults in the region have college degrees, and the prescription drug abuse rate is twice that of major cities in other areas of the nation. Unemployment is high, and “public transportation is nonexistent,” said Atchley, which contributes to a “general feeling of isolation bordering on desperation.”
The Rev. Barbara Farmer said she was surprised recently when she asked if Elk Garden needed more used clothing for the thrift store, even though the racks were overflowing. Farmer is an Elk Garden board member and associate pastor at Pleasant View United Methodist Church in Abingdon, Virginia.
“Brooke said, ‘Oh yes, because the donations not only provide for the thrift shop. Getting together and sorting out the clothes is a socialization event for them. It’s a chance for the faith community to be in action.’”
At Elk Garden, clients and volunteers are often one and the same. “It’s not uncommon for me to yell for help and have a client step in,” Atchley said. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, clients were carrying food out to the parking lot for other clients and working in the thrift store.
Some clients, like Paul, want to work off the assistance they receive. “He didn’t want to accept charity,” Atchley explained. “So we have set up a $10-an-hour volunteer pay rate for those who want to do that.”
The relationships built with community members provide opportunities for her and the volunteers to share their faith, Atchley says. She described a group of six youth who were caught vandalizing the old school as the ministry center was just beginning. The youth were assigned to Elk Garden for community service work. Over time, Atchley developed "incredibly close" friendships with them, which recently led to some deep questions about God.
(Story continues below video.)
GROWTH AND HOPE
Elk Garden School Community Ministry was created under the former Tazewell District of Holston Conference and is now a Clinch Mountain District ministry. Atchley is waiting to learn if her Church and Community Worker ministry, which was recently reorganized for the new district, has been approved and accepted by the denomination’s Board of Global Ministries.
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.
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.
Numerous ministries and projects are listed among Elk Garden’s dreams and goals, especially for neighbors struggling with addiction and opioid drug abuse. The biggest needs now are:
> New playground
> Fence for community garden
> Community garden volunteers
> Sewing machines and other sewing supplies
> Footballs, basketballs, other recreational equipment
> Toilet paper, feminine hygiene products
> Nonperishable food
> Mission teams
> Skilled workers, especially plumbers
> Gift cards
> Financial gifts
For more information, contact Rev. Brooke Atchley at Batchley@umcmission.org. To give financially to help this ministry, send a check to Elk Garden School Community Ministry, P.O. Box 800, Rosedale, VA 24280
*Paul is not his real name.
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information:
Giving Tuesday, or just giving because it's what we do (The Call, 11/21/17)
100-year-old school becomes ministry dream center (The Call, 4/6/16)
(1) Rev. Brooke Atchley comforts a client. (2) Thrift store volunteers. (3) Neighbors help carry each other's groceries. (4) Loading food from the pantry. (5) Elk Garden School Community Ministry. (6) Food pantry.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.