As told by our Founder, Melissa France,
My story is how, by God's grace, I followed a calling to serve and formed Hand in Hand Ministry.
In the spring of 2020, while running errands, I decided to look for a restaurant I had heard made great hamburgers in an outlying community. I did not find the restaurant that day, but what I did find were areas of extreme poverty very close to my own neighborhood. I know every city and state has poverty, but for whatever reason, that day it became more real to me and shook me to my core. I could not get these families off my mind. This occurred early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and just after tornadoes had struck Spartanburg. I was so concerned about how these families would cope. We were all affected by these stresses, but these families would be hit even harder.
How could I help them? Being able to provide food and basic necessities immediately came to mind, but how could I get those essentials to these families? The isolation of their neighborhoods and the lack of reliable transportation made traditional sources, like food banks, inaccessible. After some research and a few phone calls I was fortunate enough to come in contact with the social worker and McKinney-Vento liaison for District 3.
McKinney-Vento is a federal program passed in 1987 that provides rights and services to children experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness is those who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason; or are living in motels, trailer parks or other substandard housing.
The social worker informed me that there are more than 500 children in District 3 living in homelessness. I told her what I had seen and how I had felt a calling to help. She and District 3 were of course well aware of the needs of these children. They are a very caring group of educators and had food drives and a delivery system in place, utilizing bus drivers informed on how to keep an eye on these students while making weekly deliveries. They welcomed any contributions we could provide.
I had a way to help! I asked a group of friends if they would donate non-perishable food items, paper products, hygiene products and cleaning supplies. I had learned that SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) (“food stamps”) will only allow purchases of food items, and so I felt that it would be helpful to provide some of these other necessities. Very shortly I had a truck load and was able to deliver it to District 3 for distribution. I then reached out to my neighborhood and my church. The response was even more generous than I expected. My front porch was the initial drop-off location, my living room and dining room were the initial storage sites. Soon all these were filled and weekly deliveries began.
I then reached out to District 7. The McKinney-Vento liaison for the District answered my initial phone call and we discussed at length the needs of District 7 with 485 children identified as living in homelessness. Although school district social workers usually take some time off in the summer, the summer of 2020 was unique and these social workers continued to work while they found ways to serve their students. Throughout the summer volunteers helped deliver weekly, fresh produce bags provided by First Presbyterian Church Local Missions committee, excess bread collected by the church’s hospitality director, and the donated items collected by Hand in Hand.
In the fall it became obvious that learning would be virtual, and these children would not be receiving the meals normally provided for them at school. A task force was formed to reach out to the community and Hand in Hand was able to participate in the formation of EPIC: Empowering People, Impacting Change. With School District 7, Mobile Meals, Caring for Crockpots, The Episcopal Church of the Advent and First Presbyterian Church's collaboration, weekly deliveries to an increasing number of families began. At its peak, EPIC partnered with 28 families encompassing 72 students. An array of volunteers would meet each Thursday to pack and deliver food and essential items to these families.
Our service was expanding, there was great support from the community, and many of our donations were becoming monetary. It was important that we use those donations wisely. For accountability purposes, we became a fund within First Presbyterian Church Spartanburg which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. This gives us a depository that allows tax advantages to our donors and gives Hand in Hand free access to its funds.
As monetary donations have increased, Hand in Hand has been able to purchase clothing and shoes for many of these children. We have provided for well over 200 children as of this date. In most cases, these items are the first new clothing that the kids have ever owned, which has been selected and purchased just for them. Again these wonderful social workers identify the students' needs and supply us with sizes. We have received great feedback on what this does for the child's self esteem. In other cases, we are able to purchase other essentials for their household, such as air mattresses, cookware, space heaters, and many other household items.
One of the local elementary schools was chosen for a pilot project that attempts to keep troubled students in school by helping them learn to control their emotions and responses to situations. Willing teachers are trained in methods by which to accomplish this goal. Working with a trained play therapist, a list of supplies was made and Hand in Hand was to provide. Although this is not exactly what we had done before, we felt this program still supported our goal of keeping students in school so they can ultimately improve their outlook. We are very excited about this collaboration and have received very positive feedback.
Spartanburg District 6 is a large school district with 70% of their students qualifying as living in poverty. Their needs are great as well. Just like the other school districts, their social workers have identified those students in need and have a delivery system in place.
Many of these children's stories will tug at your heart. These are just a few:
- A high school senior who had already been living in a difficult situation became orphaned but, determined to graduate, is now living in a motel room.
- A child tormented at school daily because they smell of urine from having to sleep on the floor with his infant and toddler siblings.
- A single mother living in a motel with six children.
- Students kept home from school to work in order to help make ends meet.
- The principal of an elementary school had to take a student home because they were acting up and were suspended from school. While at the student's apartment, the principal discovered their mother and her four children had been sleeping on the floor. Their only possessions were two blankets. It was also discovered that the student was acting up because they could no longer get their medication—they did not have a phone nor transportation.
As you have read, Hand in Hand was started to supply basic essentials, and clothing to help sustain these families. We are not for charity items at Christmas time, but this past December was a very difficult time for many families. We were contacted by the social workers several times about the children going to their counselors and school nurses asking for help. On these children's wish lists were clothing for their family members and kerosene for heat. The older children would literally take the time to fill out the list for clothes and the sizes needed for their siblings. Hand In Hand provided. We also purchased many space heaters.
Hand in Hand was founded on the belief that the well-being of each community member affects the well-being of the community as a whole. Hand in Hand has always operated under the principle that all human beings deserve dignity and respect, and that a lack of basic resources should not diminish this dignity. We strive to provide the ability for students to stay in school, to increase their self esteem and to ultimately better their prospects. The illusion of charity, or one person being beholden to another is strenuously avoided—hence our name, Hand in Hand.
We could not have accomplished as much without the tremendous social workers of Spartanburg School Districts 3, 6, and 7. They care deeply for their students and provide the needed guidance to allow Hand In Hand to serve these children while preventing dependency and the duplication of services.
God has provided clarity as obstacles have arisen, as well as the endurance to help get us where we are today. We will continue to trust that God will show us his will for this ministry, and will continue to be of his service.