Turning a blind eye to the needs of others is not an option for members of Trinity Lutheran Church.
Located in Battle Creek's Post-Franklin Neighborhood, the church is home to members of the Woman’s Co-op
and their families, in addition to its parishioners. Pastor Kjersten Priddy says the presence of these women and their children is an ever-present reminder of ongoing needs in the community.
“It keeps us grounded and keeps us connected to the needs of the neighborhood,” Priddy says. “It reminds us that the problems we face are not the same problems everyone is facing. Their presence here makes us realize all of the things we don’t know.”
Those “things” include the lack of what many take for granted, such as food, clothing, transportation, housing, and childcare.
Among the most common needs addressed by the Woman’s Co-op are assistance with utility payments; advocacy in the court system; and better parenting techniques, says Valerie Whitney, Program Coordinator for Education and Training with the Co-op.
At any given time, she says, she and Teresa Momenee, the Co-ops’ Executive Director, are working with 160 open cases and assisting about 360 families in need of emergency services that include securing funds to pay their gas, electricity or heating bills. Oftentimes, this means helping those in need navigate a complicated route.
Besides addressing these emergency needs, the Co-op also provides employment assistance and outreach, and housing referrals.
Tracy Graham sought out employment services after being involved in an automobile accident that left her with a lot of pain in her neck and back. As a result of having to take time off to deal with her injuries, she lost the job she’d had for 14 years with a local dairy. She went to Michigan Rehabilitation Services and they referred her to the Co-op where she has been working in Front Line Services, a program that offers her training to increase her skill set for future employment.
Graham says she is receiving wage loss money through her insurance company, but she never knows when those payments will arrive.
“The injuries kept me at home and I started to think about the things I couldn’t do anymore,” Graham says. “This program through the Co-op got me out of the house and feeling better.”
Priddy says the Frontline Service and janitorial jobs that employ women at the church are paid through Michigan Rehabilitation Services
“This gives them the opportunity to beef up their skills and prepare them for re-entry into the workforce,” Whitney says. “Most of our women are low- to no-income and we try to place them in employment, but some come with barriers, colorful pasts, and employment histories. Quite a few have been in abusive situations and sometimes they might be the abuser.”
As a domestic assault survivor, Whitney says she was shocked to find that women could be the abusers. “Now you have felonies in your background for domestic violence and that gets you out of opportunities for certification programs that you could otherwise get through rather quickly,” she says.
But, it is those most basic needs that Whitney and Momenee spend a lot of time on. They say that over the last five or six years, those struggling to meet basic needs have increased substantially, while at the same time, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has lost a lot of its funding, especially those funds earmarked to assist with utility bill payments. In the past, money from the state to cover these bill payments went to different providers such as the Salvation Army and they distributed it to people who were referred to them.
“This year the state decided to give all of that money to DHHS and people had to go through a whirlwind of paperwork and jump through three different cycles to get help,” Whitney says. “Then, if they didn’t meet DHHS’s criteria they wouldn’t get their bill paid.”
This not OK given the 45 percent increase in need that Whitney and Momenee have seen this year, compared to last year.
Whitney says she and Momenee frequently work through the systems they are familiar with to help members secure funds through other sources like the Community Action Agency of Southcentral Michigan.
With an annual budget of about $189,000, the Co-op doesn’t have a lot of extra cash in its coffers, but the organization did establish a Member Needs Fund, which covers the cost of needs not covered by any other funding sources. An example of this is would be an I.D.
“This fund makes small monetary amounts available to pay for something like an I.D.,” Whitney says. “No place in town will fund that.”
Priddy, who is also Vice President of the Co-op’s board, says that the organization provides wraparound services that are critical to the women seeking assistance.
“Val and Teresa know everybody in this town,” Priddy says. “They’re able to really figure out what the barriers are for people. If DHHS can’t connect you, on a much smaller scale Val and Teresa are able to figure out where the gaps are and do something about it.”
Among the biggest barriers for individuals who look to the Co-op for help is a lack of basic computer skills and knowledge. The Co-op recently had a wireless network installed to help its members and neighborhood residents who have challenges getting to a library to use the computers there. Priddy says the church is now one of the few hotspots in the neighborhood.
“Everything is being done on computers. A lot of folks don’t have computers or the knowledge and skills to use them,” Whitney says. “They need someone who can more or less help with those issues.
“We want to be the neighborhood hub so that when applications come out for the CARE program
(from Consumer's Energy) in October or there needs to be a reverification for food stamps, they can do it here.”
While access to the Internet is a barrier faced by some of those who work with the Co-op, Whitney says the more critical issues holding back this population include lack of transportation, childcare, and funds to pay rent.
The solution for some is to help one another. It is not uncommon for members to help each using an unofficial barter system. So, if someone needs a place to stay, a member may offer them a couch and if a member needs someone to look after their kids, another member may offer watch them.
This current support system has its roots in the founding of the organization. It started with a group of women, including Momenee, who were all living in Triangle Trailer Park and experiencing tough times.
Whitney says Momenee was close to sending her children back to live with their respective fathers in Ohio after discovering that all she had to feed them one night was pork chops. Melissa Young, who was a neighbor and her best friend, who wasn’t much better off than Momenee, brought over potatoes and green beans and a board game.
“She knew she had a family,” Whitney says of Momenee.
What began as a small group of women grew to nearly 40, each one helping others in whatever ways they could — whether it was providing a meal or a ride to work or babysitting services.
Realizing that they needed a bigger space to meet in, they were offered space at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church by Jean Krohn, who would become the Co-op’s first board president after it became a full-fledged nonprofit and moved in 2005 into Trinity Lutheran Church
Priddy says the members of the Co-op have not strayed from that original generosity of spirit that formed the foundation for the organization. She says they have taught her a lot about the language of poverty and the model of scarcity.
“When I first got here five years ago, a woman explained to me that anyone on their own doesn’t have enough, but together we have things we can share. That’s changing the scarcity model from one whereas an individual you don’t have enough to as a community, you have more than enough,” Priddy says.
She saw this firsthand after she became engaged and Co-op members made it their mission to stock a kitchen for her with everything a new bride could need. She says Whitney had to stop them.
“I have a cake plate now. That’s the mentality,” Priddy says. “They know the struggle and they know what they’re going through. Those of us who spend any amount of time with them are starting to learn that.”
That learning includes lessons from Ruby Payne, author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty
, who talks about the different rules and values followed by each socioeconomic class. As an example, Priddy cites each classes relationship with food. “It’s quantity with low-income individuals; with the middle class, it’s about quality; and with the upper class, it’s how the food looks on their plate,” she says.
Whitney says the women she works with are always in the mode of, “'It’s OK now and I’ve made it this far', but they’re always waiting for the bottom to drop out.”
Graham says she still feels like she’s in poverty, even though she has raised two daughters who are doing well. Part of it, she says, is that when you have money, you want to spend it because you feel like you have worked hard and struggled enough and you deserve it.
“You’re trying to get the things you want, but by the same token you’re still not budgeting your finances properly,” Graham says.
Whitney says a good majority of the women she helps lack sufficient budgeting skills.
“We have a budgeting class through Blue Ox Credit Union where we try to get them to understand that if they save even $2 a week that adds up over time and could pay for that tire they blow. It’s hard to get that mentality going,” Whitney says.
Despite this constant tug of war between feeling like there’s enough and feeling like there’s never enough, Priddy and Whitney say the women who belong to the Co-op are among the generous souls they have ever come across. They have provided items for a baby shower for a new mom with few resources, donated what they could for the victim of a fire, and stocked three fridges with food for a mother who had lost a child.
“These are some of the most resilient, hardworking women that I know,” Whitney says. “These are women in poverty that don’t have a lot to give, that are willing to give."
During a recent Sunday sermon, Priddy said it was impossible to know where Trinity ends and the Woman’s Co-op begins. “It’s messy, chaotic and complicated in all of its beautiful complexity.”
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Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.