Fall 2015

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Connecting human need to community resources
by Debbie Durso

Far too often, people in need are marginalized by a system that cannot meet their real need. A group of people in St. Charles County, Missouri, decided it was time to stop handing Band-Aids to those with broken arms. Instead, in 2013 they formed the Neighbor Helping Neighbor Service Coalition to help avert a deepening crisis in their city.

Supplying funds to pay an electric bill is not the same as getting to know a family and learning why they can’t pay the electric bill. So the goal of NHNSC is to go far beyond meeting one or two immediate needs. The act of providing training in life skills, and connecting people with agencies and resources where they can get help, has the potential to change a family’s future.

For example, “Sarah” and her children were referred to Calvary Church (EFCA) through a counselor at a school in Saint Charles, concerned that the family was homeless. Calvary is a founding member of NHNSC. Sarah was invited to an initial intake meeting with two individuals from Calvary: Matt Miller, the community ministry pastor, and Debi, a trained service coordinator.

Working as a team, they developed a comprehensive “life plan” that incorporated ideas and resources from businesses and organizations such as Lawlor Chiropractic Clinic, Reliable Resumés and St. Francis Community Services. As a result, Sarah was able to find a full-time job, adequate housing for her family, supplemental food, reliable transportation, medical care and child care.

Debi remains in contact with Sarah on a regular basis, and the family has reached a level of stability on several levels. This single mom is now looking forward to the day when she can pay it forward.

If Calvary Church ceased to exist, would its impact on the community and world be missed?

Where it all began

God began leading Calvary Church toward this new area of ministry back in 2011, after church leadership settled on three main focuses: inspirational worship, transformational growth and irreplaceable impact. Irreplaceable impact means that if Calvary Church ceased to exist, its impact on the community and around the world would be missed.

Calvary’s lead pastor, Terry Sanderson, then charged Matt Miller to brainstorm avenues of community ministry that would align with irreplaceable impact. Matt and several others met with St. Charles County leaders regularly for three months, seeking answers to two specific questions: “Where do you see the greatest needs in our community, and where do you see the greatest pain?”

As a result of those meetings, and after (twice) reading through the book Toxic Charity, by Robert Luptin, Matt came to the conviction that an individual’s or family’s cycle of living from crisis to crisis might be broken via consistent, supportive care over a long period of time within the context of healthy relationships. So Matt turned to city leaders in 2013 and asked: “Can we bring comprehensive care to people in need by creating smoother links between agencies?”

The initial meeting was attended by pastors, elected and nonelected government officials, directors of aid agencies, school principals, and police officers, as well as the mayor of St. Charles and the superintendent of the school district. They came together to discuss how the community cared for hurting people.

There was so much energy out of that meeting that four working groups were formed to start the process of building a comprehensive system of care. Thus the Neighbor Helping Neighbor Service Coalition was born. NHNSC is composed of about 40-percent faith-based organizations, 19-percent mental and physical health agencies, 15-percent government offices and courts, 15-percent secular agencies, and 11-percent other nonprofits.

Target a school district or neighborhood first, then gather organizations together to cast vision.

Immediately, the approach to families and individuals in crisis changed. Before, points out Sally Faith, St. Charles City mayor, “the main thing was, ‘Here is a child and this child is having problems.’

“If you just fix that problem at school, there could be other things in the sphere around him, and it could be housing, it could be parents, it could be working, lack of food, lack of clothes. It could be a lot of things. And so what I like about Neighbor Helping Neighbor is that they will look at all of those and try and find an answer.”

The Toxic Charity model advocates targeting a school district or neighborhood first, then gathering organizations together to cast vision. So individuals and families in need enter the coalition’s system of care when they are referred by a school counselor. A NHNSC volunteer service coordinator, working under a member organization, then takes charge on behalf of the client for fast, comprehensive action.

While the impact of NHNSC is being felt county-wide, such a personalized, comprehensive, life-plan approach has its own challenges. Part of the population is transient, for example, while other families have such deep issues that years of work are needed. For some families, replacing old habits becomes too hard, and others just beginning to stabilize are easily knocked down by circumstances.

NHNSC is still in its infancy, but other parts of the St. Louis Metro area are taking steps to duplicate what is working in the City of St. Charles. And several other Evangelical Free Churches are exploring involvement as well.

With government and social services on board, what’s needed for expansion is the involvement of additional churches. The coalition’s dream is for a central intake process, where people in need in the county would call one number. From there, trained workers would immediately start the care process—contacting a service coordinator who works to connect the family to various opportunities and start to build stability and restore dignity.

Other EFCA leaders might similarly serve as the change agent in their own cities by launching a system-wide support coalition—an incredible opportunity to have a seat at the table as entire communities are transformed, one individual, one family at a time.

How to get started? According to Matt Miller, “Start by building relationships with the school district, aid agencies, government and the community. You have to build credibility. (For years, Calvary Church has had community service days and partnerships.) Then, cast the vision for comprehensive care with these entities and others. Learn how they already care for hurting people and investigate how you can work together.” Contact Matt to learn more, via email or phone: (636) 939-4343 x1157.

Debbie Durso is director of communications at Calvary Church (EFCA) in Saint Peters, Missouri, and also serves in the areas of hospitality and production work.