By Laura Coulter
Grace Now, a food and clothing bank located on South Collins Street in Richmond, is usually buzzing on Monday and Thursday nights. A handful of people wait in the full parking lot, chatting and smoking, while others mill around inside. Volunteers work at a rapid pace in the stock room, pulling food items from the shelves and sorting them into boxes or bags for each family.
In 2010, Grace Now distributed about 127,000 food items to 1,200 households. It takes between $3,000 and $4,000 a month to keep the pantry stocked. Local businesses such as Panera Bread and Kroger donate food to Grace Now on a regular basis. Most who receive assistance are Madison County residents, some also come from Estill, Garrard and Rockcastle counties.
“Several churches and civic organizations as well as many individuals provide the support to allow Grace Now to meet the needs of the community,” said volunteer Sherry Robinson, who along with her husband, Glenn, have been a large part of the driving force behind Grace Now for several years.
Robinson said there are three primary differences set Grace Now apart from other food pantries. First, the pantry does not limit the number of times per month a client can use Grace Now.
“We follow the once-a-month distribution rules for the food from the federal program (we are one of four pantries in Madison County that distribute this food), but we do not apply those rules to other food,” she said.
Clients are encouraged to come in only when they need to, and most regulars only come in once a month or less. “But when they are in need,” said Robinson, “they will get food from us.”
In addition, Grace Now invites clients to make choices about what types of food they receive. “If someone has come to get food to feed their family, it doesn’t really help them if a portion of the food is not what their family will eat,” Robinson says.
Grace Now volunteers try to provide different foods that can be combined to create meals. “It is not sufficient to just give people ‘food,’” Robinson said. “We provide a variety of fruits and vegetables, canned meats, soups, side dishes, and breakfast items on a regular and consistent basis.”
One reason Grace Now has become a positive force in the Richmond area in the past 10 years (it began as a ministry of Rosedale Baptist Church in December 2001), is that the volunteers focus not just on meeting people’s physical needs but on building relationships with them as well. A volunteer meets with clients each time they visit Grace Now, not only to gather the basic information needed to provide assistance but to get to know the person and learn a little about his or her story.
“Every person who comes into the food pantry has a story, a reason for being there,” Robinson said. She says that though there is a common stereotype that people who use assistance programs such as Grace Now are lazy and just looking for a handout, this is far from the truth in most cases.
People who call on Grace Now for assistance include people suffering from illnesses or disabilities, many of whom can’t work. Some are waiting for applications for disability or food stamps from the government to process. Others are out of work and can’t find jobs. One client was recently laid off and is having trouble finding even a minimum wage job because he is considered overqualified. Robinson says it often takes courage for these people to seek help.
“Sometimes people who come into Grace Now are there because of circumstances beyond their control and sometimes it’s because they’ve made bad choices in their lives. But, you know, it doesn’t really matter. Our purpose isn’t to determine who deserves to be there (it wouldn’t be grace then, would it?). Our purpose is to take care of the ‘least of these,’ whatever they ‘look’ like,” Robinson said.
The Robinsons have seen the results of Grace Now’s efforts in many encounters with present and former clients over the years. As they were eating in a local restaurant one night, they were approached by a woman who had been a Grace Now client. She wanted to express her thanks.
“She explained that she had just completed a nursing degree and was back on her feet,” Robinson recalled. “It had meant so much to her that we had been there to help her when she needed it.” Often clients ask how they can help and end up volunteering at Grace Now, helping other people in situations similar to their own.
“We serve clients by providing physical resources to them, but our mission involves building relationships with people,” says Robinson. “We laugh together and sometimes we cry together… It’s all about treating people with dignity and respect. We live by the principle of grace, which means we aren’t judging why they are there. For that reason, when we see each other outside of Grace Now, we greet each other as friends. It is this philosophy that has a positive impact on our community.”
If you would like to volunteer at Grace Now, you can sign up online. Monetary donations can be made at www.gracenowky.com or mailed to 110 S. Collins St., Richmond. Along with food, which is always their greatest need, Grace Now accepts donations of clothing, personal care items (toilet paper, shampoo, soap, toothpaste), and household items such as sheets, blankets and towels.