Co-op ministry cares for rural poor


UMNS story by Erin Edgemon*

Delbert Hancock and his family were truly proud when they moved into their own home on Upper Sand Mountain 18 years ago.

“It wasn’t a big mansion, but to us it was,” he said.

The Hancock family was able to purchase their own home, thanks to the Heart and Hand Housing program, a ministry of the Upper Sand Mountain Parish.

Upper Sand Mountain Parish is a cooperative ministry encompassing eight area United Methodist churches in a 1,000-mile area of Jackson and DeKalb counties in the northeast corner of Alabama.

Operating since 1969, the parish provides a long list of services to this rural area at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

“We formed together as a parish because we had so many people in need in our congregation,” said Tayna Rains, director of the parish. The small churches in the area had realized that alone they couldn’t meet all of the needs in the community.

The poverty rate in the Sand Mountain Parish climbs as high as 70 percent in some of the rural towns, which range in size from about 3,000 residents to 400.

Kenneth Graham served as pastor of Section United Methodist, one of the eight United Methodist churches in the parish, for three and a half years and saw firsthand the difference the parish makes in the community.

“The Upper Sand Mountain is one of the poorest areas in Alabama,” the pastor said. “Without the parish, there are a lot of folks that would go hungry. A lot wouldn’t have housing.”

Providing stability

For decades the dominant industry in the area was millwork. Fort Payne, Ala., was known as the “Sock Capital of the World” because of all of the sock mills operating in the town. Now most of those mills have gone out of business, leaving few job opportunities in the Sand Mountain area.

Graham said the parish provides stability in the area. People know that the parish is going to be there for them if they need anything from food to assistance after tornadoes.

A few years ago when a tornado hit Sand Mountain, it was volunteers from the parish who showed up to help first, he said.

Rains said the parish is unique because it literally does anything to help people in need — from providing food, money for rent or electric bills to transportation, clothes and school supplies.

Upper Sand Mountain Parish has created jobs in four thrift stores it operates. About 20 people work in the stores, all located on the mountain, making it one of the larger employers in the area. Everything sold in the Better Way Shoppes has been donated to the parish.

The most used service provided by the parish is its food pantry. Some 4,400 received food through the pantry in 2009.

“The pantry offers a shopping experience by awarding points to the family based on the size of the household so the family has the choice over the items they get to use at home,” said Rains, who grew up on the mountain.

Hand up, not handout

Rains lives in her great-grandparents’ former home. Like many people who live in the Sand Mountain area, she has an attachment to her roots and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

“This is where I belong.”

Rains said the parish strives to provide a “hands up” to residents in need rather than a “handout.”

One example is the Gardens of Plenty program where families are given seeds and fertilizer so they can grow their own garden.

In turn, Upper Sand Mountain Parish operates an industrial cannery where fruits and vegetables are cooked and canned. Some items go to the food pantry or are used in soup kitchens in the area. Others are canned for the parish’s line of food products, Alabama Green Tomato products, which are sold at area shops and through the Internet. The Alabama Green Tomato product line includes relish, pickles, chutney, salsa and 12 flavors of jam. Green tomatoes are used in every product because they take on the taste of any other food you put with them.

Rains said there was a need for the service since the closest homeless shelter is a couple hours away from Sand Mountain.

“People are rooted in this area,” she said. “This shelter gives them a place to go so they can stay on the mountain.”

The shelter, which is set to open before the end of the year, consists of two large bedroom/living room areas with a shared kitchen and bathroom.

‘God came through’

Hancock said he is just as proud today of his home as he was 18 years ago.

“For us it was just a blessing at a time it didn’t seem like we would ever own a home. God came through and made a way,” he said.

The Hancocks applied to receive a home through the Heart and Hand House program after Delbert lost his job. One day he showed up for work and the business was closed.

Following the loss of that job, he was forced to get any work to help make ends meet. The first job he received only paid $35 a day. He had been bringing home $400 a week.

Soon the family was forced to sell their home and move into a rental.

Upper Sand Mountain Parish works in partnership with churches that volunteer to raise the money for the building supplies and build the houses. To date, 45 houses have been constructed.

Priority is given to families with children. Families selected for a home are entered in a rent-to-own, interest-free program where they pay for the cost of the building materials. The average monthly mortgage payment is $140. Typically, it takes families about 20 years to pay off their home.

About 80 percent of the families placed into homes live at or below poverty, Rains said.

The homes are passive solar houses, which means they are more energy efficient than a regular home. They have large windows that face toward the sun. The floors are cement, which makes the house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Having his own home again gave Hancock “hope,” he said. “It let me know that everything was going to be OK.”

*Edgemon is a freelance writer in Bell Buckle, Tenn.

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