A new effort is underway in Lawrence Township to address what many are learning is a growing problem; feeding hungry families in the community. Pastor Al Rider of the Servants of Christ Lutheran Church on Oaklandon Road knows of the need firsthand. “Two or three families a day were walking up to our church looking for somewhere to get some help,” says Rider. “We would give them some grocery coupons and maybe a gas card, but obviously, the need was greater than we thought.”
When seminary student and church worker Teri Ditslear (wife of Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear) asked Rider for some ideas for her school project and paper, the idea of feeding the hungry came up. “Teri worked with our congregation this past school year, so when she asked about ideas for her project, I threw out several suggestions including a food pantry,” he said. She interrupted me and asked, “Wait. What’s up with the food pantry?”
“I knew she had found her project right then,” says Rider, who went on to explain how Lawrence Township had just lost its one and only public food pantry when the Oaklandon Christian Church moved to Hancock County.
There was only one existing program sponsored by the Lawrence Church of God, which catered primarily to school children and their families. So essentially in our community, people in need had no place to go.
Ditslear got to work and put together the first meeting on what would soon become the Lawrence Township Hunger Coalition. “We had no idea it would be this big,” says Rider. The first meeting was held in the Fellowship Hall at the Servants of Christ Church. The response was overwhelming.
The Mayor of Lawrence and his staff showed up; Township Trustee Russell Brown and his staff, and a number of church representatives and other community leaders as well.
Over lunch, they all agreed that something more needed to be done. They focused on a joint public and private partnership that would come together to stock pantries on all sides of the Township with food, clothing and some school supplies for children. The effort would coordinate hours so that one pantry would be open somewhere all the time.
A second meeting at The Lawrence Caring Center was initiated. This time representatives from the Greater Lawrence Chamber of Commerce attended, along with the interfaith Hunger Initiative of Indianapolis, Lutheran Child and Family Services, the Lawrence Police and Fire Departments and several more area church members. Obviously, the interest was just as great as the need.
The combined groups came up with a new program called The Lawrence Hunger Coalition. Trustee Russell Brown officially formalized the Coalition in April. Brown was excited about the new venture. “This means the Trustees’ office can now supply vouchers to area food pantries for emergency food assistance, instead of just grocery and discount stores. It saves money in the long run,” says Brown.
Today, the number of pantries in the Lawrence area has increased and now includes The Sharing Place on East 42nd near Emerson; The Lawrence Caring Center on East 46th near Shadeland; Mt. Carmel Community Life Center on East 42nd near Mitthoeffer Road; and CAFÉ (Community Alliance of the Far Eastside) at 38th Street and Post Road. All four pantries have seen a definite increase in needs of area residents. “The need is so great in this area,” says Sharing Place Director Nicole Anderson. “We serve over 800 individuals and we’ve seen about a 35% increase in need from last year.” Anderson, whose pantry offers food as well as clothing, baby items and hygiene products, serves primarily the unemployed and disabled, but that now includes many who have never needed help to feed their families before. “They are embarrassed and afraid to ask for food and other items,” says Anderson. “We end up some days just talking to people, just hearing them out, as they never thought they would be in this kind of a position.”
Some have lost once-secure jobs in the recent economic downturn and are trying to get back into the working world and just need help preparing for job interviews. The CAFÉ now offers a “Gentlemen’s Closet” where clients can come and find a suitable outfit for a job interview.
Now that the Coalition is up and running, they are prepared to go into the community and ask for extra assistance. Those who want to help can donate food and clothing to any of the four pantries. Volunteers are also needed to drive the elderly or disabled to and from the pantries. Sponsors are also being sought to cover overhead costs of operating each pantry. The Lawrence Caring Center, for example, pays $900 a month in rent and utilities just to keep its doors open at 46th and Shadeland.
The Lawrence Hunger Coalition is a wonderful example of a true neighbor-helping-neighbor partnership, and is now being used as a model for other townships across Marion County. Under a grant from the Lilly Foundation and the Interfaith Hunger Initiative, the program here in Lawrence Township is the first to qualify as a Gleaners Pantry Partner in a national pilot project to help other communities learn how to better help their own.
Servants of Christ Pastor Al Rider remains modest to this day about getting the project started in the first place. He and Ditslear provided the spark to put together a powerful partnership in the community that was eager to make a difference at home and pave the way for other communities to follow.
If you would like more information on the Lawrence Hunger Coalition, please contact Pastor Al Rider at the Servants of Christ office at (317) 823-9580.