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A Hand Up: For 50 years, Interfaith Human Services has helped bring Centre County residents in need back from the brink

by on March 01, 2018 9:02 AM

When Interfaith Human Services began in 1968 as Christian Missions, with a budget of only a few hundred dollars and calls coming in to a member’s living room at all hours, the scrappy founders saw an unfilled need in Centre County, one they could address better together than separately.

“Back in 1968 is really when we started,” says Executive Director Wendy Vinhage. “There was a group of about six congregations who came together and … wanted to help low-income families with a lot of basic needs. They found it was a lot more burdensome for one congregation to help if they all worked individually, but it was easier for them to pool their resources together.”

Over time, Christian Missions would change its name to Interfaith Missions, to stress its inclusion of all faiths, and would then drop the “Missions,” replacing it with “Human Services.”

As board member and long-time volunteer Susan Smith says, “People felt ‘mission’ seemed like helping people overseas rather than in your community.”

Smith is one of many volunteer board members, representing the more than 30 congregations that now collaborate to help low-income families in Centre County. While now much of her involvement includes fundraising and strategizing with her fellow board members, she remembers a time when Interfaith was still getting started, and everyone had to pitch in and break a sweat.

“We were first in the volunteer center on West College Ave. University Baptist and Brethren gave us the use of a house behind their church. It had been some kind of a barn or garage. A bunch of us actually did the work of converting it to an office. There was a contractor, but we did the painting and the actual physical creating of the office,” she says, also laughingly recounting instances of delivering donated furniture and “being on the back end of a refrigerator trying to get it up a set of stairs.”

Another long-time member, Mary Lou Bennett, recalls, “One night my husband came home from a meeting saying that he and another member had ‘volunteered’ their wives to be the co-administrators of the newly formed Emergency Fund for Christian Mission[s]. We had $300 at our disposal for that first year!”

“Of course at that time, home heating oil was somewhere between [11 cents and 17 cents] a gallon and the oil companies would go out to fill a tank half full, and a bag of groceries was around $15,” she explains.

“We not infrequently received calls from the volunteers of the A Friend phone service requesting a place for someone to spend the night. At that time the State College Hotel was willing to help with emergency overnight stays. I remember one night around 11:30 receiving a call from one of the volunteers demanding to know when I was going to solve this problem of homelessness. … Many times the A Friend volunteers were given wild stories of needs – one ‘request’ was from someone saying he was with the FBI and the agency had not sent him his money yet – and we would have to filter out real needs versus creative needs. One of the reasons for congregations to band together was to be able to screen invalid requests.”

As Interfaith Human Services has developed, incorporated new congregations, and added new services to its offerings, one in particular seems to stand out as absolutely vital to the community, no matter who you talk to.

“About 10 years ago, we started a financial care program,” explains Vinhage. “So rather than just helping [people] with their immediate needs, we’d see that money management is an issue [for someone] or maybe they’re being exploited financially by a family member and we need to look into that, or they may have a mental health diagnoses or intellectual disability. … The mission was still the same – to help low-income families – but it was also to provide long-term support.

“We definitely see a huge need for people who struggle to pay their bills. We’re seeing a lot of people, because of high rents in the area, they struggle, living paycheck to paycheck. … Really when it comes down to it, even if you have very little money, if someone can help you manage your money, then you’re less likely to get behind on your bills, get into debt, have your utilities shut off, less likely to need to rely on other state resources.”

Vinhage explains that two Interfaith case managers work with about 100 people on a long-term basis, to help them avoid becoming dependent on state and other resources, and manage their money effectively, with good results.

She speaks of one woman in particular who would be facing the dangers of the frigid central Pennsylvania elements had Interfaith not stepped in.

“We had a woman a few years ago, who came to us because she had intellectual disabilities and was living in her home and she was freezing because she wasn’t paying her bills, because she didn’t understand how to do that with her disability … she really needed that help with money management. One of our case managers worked with her and suddenly she was living in her home warm, because her heating bills were being paid … she was finally able to be stable.”

“There are a lot of people who need somebody to say, ‘OK, you have this much money in a month,’” adds Smith. “You have to pay your rent first, and you have to pay for food, and you go through your budget and [prioritize]. For some people it means not buying cigarettes every week or not buying stuff that’s not really a need, but a want. People get the idea that you can get over spending all your money and having a week at the end with no money for food, that you can learn to manage your money. For instance, people who are homeless go to a shelter and get that same kind of counseling, but they’re really in dire straits. People we get at Interfaith are on the brink. It’s a way to prevent a person from becoming homeless or having a crisis.”

In many ways, the service is part of Interfaith’s overall method of providing what Smith calls “not a hand out, but a hand up.”

“Our case managers work really hard with people to make sure they can discontinue that cycle” of continuously relying on or needing assistance, says Vinhage. “Even people who come to us for heating assistance, it’s not just, ‘Oh, here you go, here’s your heat.’ You have to come to an educational class that teaches money-management skills and basic energy conservation that you can apply in your home to save money. Our biggest takeaway is that we try to get people to be more self-sufficient.”

Beyond the focus on self-sufficiency, another thing that sets Interfaith apart from some other congregation-led nonprofits in the area is the decision to not bring faith or religion into the equation when helping others.

“It’s neighbors helping neighbors. There’s no proselytizing,” says Smith. “We don’t even ask if someone belongs to a different congregation. That’s totally irrelevant. If they have a need, then they come for help.”

And Interfaith certainly is helping quite a few people, filling a large void in the community, a void that many in Centre County may not even know exists.

As another volunteer and board member, Connie Cousins, notes, “I don’t think [much of the community is] aware at all [of the need]. I’ve told some of my stories to friends and they’re always a little surprised. … I’ve been on mission trips out of the country, but to see the need right here in your own county in, what to me, moving here, seemed like a pretty prosperous area [is surprising].”

Smith agrees.

“[People] think of Centre County as being a pocket of prosperity and for many people it is, but the problem of people needing food and shelter is a national problem. When you look at the number of people who are homeless in cities, there’s no reason for that…”

Community members or congregations interested in being a part of Interfaith are encouraged to participate.

“We always need help with volunteers,” says Vinhage. “If anyone’s interested, we can always use help. …There are things around the office people can help with, during fundraisers, but really we’ll try to tailor whatever they want to do to something that will help the organization.”

Julie Cody, an Interfaith volunteer for nearly seven years, notes that “the role the group of volunteers plays is truly important to the overall goals of the organization. Many spend hours answering the phone, taking messages, preparing mailings and entering data to name just a few tasks the volunteers do. Adding employees to the payroll for these tasks would take away from the funds that we use to directly help our clients.”

For those who may need assistance from Interfaith Human Services, Vinhage says it all starts with a call. Based on the caller’s need, they’re directed to the proper help.

According to Vinhage, last fiscal year, Interfaith provided 230 people with emergency financial assistance, helped 158 people with heating assistance (a below-average number because of warmer temperatures – it’s typically about 200-400 per year) and distributed more than 2,000 pieces of furniture and major appliances to 356 families.

“It is amazing to me that 50 years ago a small group of concerned folks planted the seeds that are now flourishing,” says Bennett. “It is an honor to have been a small part of that.”

Interfaith Human Services is having a 50th anniversary open house party on Thursday, April 12, from 4-6 p.m.at Foxdale Village in State College. The program starts at 5 p.m. Those interested in attending are encouraged, but not required, to call ahead to IHS. To learn more about the organization, call (814) 234-7731, or visit ihs-centrecounty.org.

Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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