Friday, April 24, 2009

Gathering 'round the table

ACCESS of West Michigan calls forums to discuss poverty, hunger

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 21, 2009)--It wasn't actually a round table, and there were no knights seated, but the individuals gathered at Grand Rapids' southeast side's Living Word Ministries exhibited as noble a spirit as found in any Canterbury tale.

The ACCESS Community Roundtable, sponsored this week at five regional locations, aimed to gather various agencies together to discuss how to better coordinate services to the region's homeless, unemployed, and underemployed individuals and families.

In the face of federal and state cutbacks for social welfare programs during the Reagan administration, ACCESS emerged out of a strong desire to help the community's poor and hungry. It was then that the collaborative determined to lend organizing power to services provided by small, independent agencies and church efforts. 

ACCESS does not provide food directly to individuals; rather, it offers case management, hunger advocacy, poverty education

"Our slogan, if you will, is helping congregations help people," commented Marsha DeHollander, program director for ACCESS.

Nancy Reenders, ACCESS hunger initiative coordinator, echoed that sentiment: "What we do is try to coordinate the work of those who (provide food and services)."

DeHollander, on staff with ACCESS since 1985, was pleased with the outcome of the forums this week. "We learn from each other," she said. "New ideas, new resources. We feel it is very important to regularly get together so that we may respond to the community's needs cooperatively."

The meetings provided attendees with a variety of information and resources to bring back to their respective food pantries, church programs, and social agencies. Among those in attendance at the southeast side meeting were representatives from John Knox Presbyterian Church, First CRC, and South End Community Outreach Ministries. 

The table was also open for individuals to share their experiences of both struggle and success. 

Flo Koster, a member of nearby Neland Avenue CRC, shared success stories of her congregation's food pantry and community programs.

Another attendee, Bob Storteboom, highlighted Covenant CRC's furniture pantry. "We distributed more than 2300 pieces of furniture in 2008," he told the group. He also enlisted other Roundtable participants to direct their served communities to the unique program.

Troy Oglesby sat at the table as a representative of Living Word, the host to Tuesday's event. Living Word has exhibited strong growth in recent years. "With a larger footprint comes a larger presence in the community," expressed Oglesby, youth pastor at Living Word. 

He explained that his congregation hoped to plug further into the network ACCESS has established in order to better serve the community.

Turnout for the meeting at Living Word was strong, as were the other gatherings across Grand Rapids. In fact, the southeast side meeting was so well attended, ACCESS ran out of complimentary coffee mugs promised to participants.

"They were wonderful," commented DeHollander at the week's end, her voice tinged with a hint of weariness.

It can be exhausting, no doubt, coordinating services for people in need in a trying economic time. 

The Grand Rapids community can be thankful that DeHollander and her staff at ACCESS are leading the way.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

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