Ministry's vital service is a joyful one for volunteers

The Eastern Catawba Cooperative Christian Ministry in Newton provides food, clothing and financial assistance with utility bills for individuals and families in need.

The ministry serves all of Catawba County outside Hickory, including Sherrills Ford. In 2009, it gave food assistance to 1,600 families from the Sherrills Ford/Terrell area.

Because it is a crisis assistance ministry, applicants for aid must demonstrate special circumstances to qualify for aid.

United Methodist minister Robert Silber, the ministry's executive director, said this type of ministry differs from public assistance because it focuses on families in specific, usually isolated, crises, such as job loss or illness.

"The joy of this ministry is being able to help people in the darkest points of their lives," Silber said. "We can help them in God's name. We don't push religion on them, but we're very clear about it."

The ministry has 13 paid staff and some 65 "regular, dedicated" volunteers, he said. When it opens each morning, the staff and volunteers meet for devotions and prayer. They keep a first-name-only prayer list.

At 8:30 a.m., the staff begins interviewing assistance applicants. On busy days, the waiting area may be filled.

The ministry is supported by more than 150 churches and businesses, including grocery stores that donate food. One baker donates 250 to 300 loaves of fresh bread weekly, Silber said.

A half-dozen volunteers work in the ministry's huge pantry, sorting dry goods, fresh produce and frozen and refrigerated foods. A box of potatoes the size of a sofa sits in the middle of the floor. Shelves hold bags of groceries assembled into household allotments of cereal, canned goods and other staples.

Silber, an ECCCM veteran, became executive director in May. His first volunteer experience was more than 10 years ago, when he brought his church youth group to volunteer in the food pantry.

"I had never seen such organized chaos," he said. "It was joyful."

The best economic indicator may be the data from charities like ECCCM, particularly when that information is put into context by someone who has been in the community for a long time, like Silber.

"Today I'm seeing people that I didn't think I would see, people who don't want to be here but they can't find a job. Maybe (they are) embarrassed and even would have been donating a year ago," he said.

The ministry may be better known in the community than a year ago, but statistics show the need for assistance has increased in the past decade. In 1998, the ministry provided an average of 26 family services per day. By 2009, that number had increased almost tenfold, to 220 services per day.

"We've lost textiles, we've lost the optical cable (and) furniture (industries)," Silber said.

Still, the community continues to meet the ministry's needs, and the atmosphere there is as joyful as the one Silber found 10 years ago. Even when he has offered regular volunteers a paid position, they have refused, Silber said: "The rewards that they get are the people they're serving."