November 3, 2011 by Terry Ropp
PRAIRIE GROVE – The charitable, non-profit organization, Life Ministries, is a premier example of what an idea, a few people and belief can do. The word “life” stands for linking individuals for essentials. According to former director Joyce Cooksey, the organization officially began in 1993 though the concept was created previously by two women, Marge MeKlveen and Lila Dunham.
The two Baptist women also belonged to the local Women’s Club. Marge and Lila came from different parts of the country, and Joyce believes they were aware of other organizations like Life Ministries elsewhere in the country. One day they were discussing the large numbers of local people who were asking churches for help with food, clothing, and other needs, and they thought a more organized approach might meet more people’s needs more efficiently. Soon Methodist Patrick Hall and Prairie Grove Christian Church member Lora Bell entered into the discussion.
“Just as now, there was a group called the Ministerial Alliance, a group of ministers who met on a regular basis to discuss church-related issues, and they not only liked the idea but ran with it,” Joyce said.
The program started with nine churches and now has five or six that regularly participate with monthly donations, while others help as they can due to very small congregations. A few of the original churches have since closed.
Life Ministries is not a little organization. “There are no paid positions and over 50 people donate a total of at least 1,000 work hours each month. Also all proceeds from the Thrift Store go into the general fund,” said Pat Law, the new interim director.
People who need help can come every three months and be interviewed in one of two interview rooms. They come during Thrift Store hours and fill out a questionnaire about their needs, whether or not they have a Bible, and the sizes of the families. The questionnaire provides the basis for the interview, and the interviewers have to be gentle but thorough to ensure those with the greatest needs are the ones to receive the help. Help comes in a variety of forms such as food, clothing, partial payment of utilities, a little gas money to look for a job or get to the doctor, etc. and is based on a case by case method.
The facility and organization are amazing. The Thrift Store portion is crammed full of goods carefully organized but with very narrow aisles in rabbit warren fashion. Items are color coded for price to decrease sorting and pricing time and to help customers easily keep track of the prices of their purchases.
In the back are two large rooms for sorting and storage. The sorting area for newly donated items is so full that people have very little room in which to work. Consequently some have to work outside.
“We work outside when it’s sunny and beautiful like today. Come to think of it, we work out here when it’s hot or even when it’s cold enough for heavy coats,” chuckled Mary Franas as she worked alongside fellow volunteer Cindy Dobbs. The other storage area is packed with boxes filled with non-seasonal items such as summer clothing.
Also in the back is the food pantry, meticulously arranged with storage shelves full of canned goods and other non-perishable items including some supplies that reach almost to the ceiling. At one time, nutritionist Ora Cowan was a volunteer. She develop a packing system that allows even someone unfamiliar with the pantry to healthfully and accurately pack food boxes according to how many people are in the family.
Pat said that churches are not the only contributors. Contributions also come from corporations like Wal-Mart, Pepperidge Farms, Tyson Foods and the Prairie Grove Lions Club. Another important contributor, the Lutheran based Thrivent Insurance, matches from 50 to 100 percent of the contributions made from Peace Lutheran Church through fundraising events such as craft sales, rummage sales, and dinners. Though not as much this year due to the drought, farmers also are an important contributing group by donating produce such as potatoes and squash with the University of Arkansas sometimes donating eggs from their farm.
A final source of contributions comes from the public who donate clothing, books, furniture, and knickknacks to the thrift shop.
“One problem we have is that people often leave items that are more than gently used creating a disposal problem that depletes our charitable resources,” said Joyce. Items are also only supposed to be left during Thrift Store hours, which are Tuesday and Thursday mornings and Saturdays until 2 p.m. Items left outside can be stolen or damaged, defeating the purpose of the donation.
“I love volunteering here,” said Judy Smith, whose husband Ed is both Chairman of the Board and in charge of getting Bibles for the organization. “It is a great place to help people and a great place for people having a hard time to come and get help with their everyday needs.”
“The help process is private and sensitive,” Joyce said.
Life Ministries is thriving and others both locally and out of state are asking for information on how to start their own organizations. Life Ministries’ biggest challenge is space.
“We need a bigger building. We can tell the economy is not getting better because the numbers keep increasing,” Pat said. “We are so blessed to have Life Ministries because we are supposed to serve and this is one way to do it.”