- Associated Press - Saturday, January 7, 2017

GLENWOOD, Iowa (AP) - It was a chance encounter with a widowed mother in a gas station that inspired Kristy Wilson to start a year-round charitable project known as Mills County United.

On Nov. 14, 2014, Wilson walked into the gas station near her home and noticed that the typically friendly store clerk was not herself.

“I got up to the register and I was like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and she just started crying,” Wilson said.

The woman was recently widowed. Without her husband’s income she was struggling to feed her teenage sons. A 25-cent raise put her over the income limit for free lunches at the kids’ school. Despite being eligible for reduced-price school lunches, she still lacked the funds to buy lunches or groceries that week.

To make matters worse, the weather was turning cold and a zipper on her son’s ill-fitting coat was broken. She tried to purchase a coat for him at a local thrift store, but they wanted more money than she had and they couldn’t negotiate on price.

Without being asked, Wilson immediately bought groceries for the clerk and returned to the gas station.

“She was really excited and grateful and I told her I would start seeing if I could find a coat for her son,” Wilson said. “Even used kids coats were $30, $20 (online) and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is crazy. There’s got to be somebody I know who has an extra coat in their closet.’” So she made a Facebook page to find a coat.

Before long, Wilson was tracking donations and requests on a spreadsheet, matching those in need with people donating furniture, appliances and clothing. It is an improvised, grass-roots effort to help out anyone struggling to make ends meet.

The Daily Nonpareil (https://bit.ly/2hS1Uj0 ) reports that now under the auspices of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Glenwood, Mills County United has provided dozens of struggling southwest Iowa families with gifts and holiday meals, as well as help with food, furniture and clothes throughout the year. The group helps anyone who expresses a need. It doesn’t require people to justify their needs.

Wilson estimates that 2,200 people in Mills County, Iowa, have been helped in some way by Mills County United over the last two years. This Christmas alone, 49 families received donated Christmas meals and 102 children had gifts from their wish lists under the tree.

Wilson often volunteers more than 40 hours a week as the program manager for the project. This is in addition to her part-time, paid position as the youth mentoring coordinator with the Mills County Public Health Department.

Wanting to do more and sensing that the unmet need was great, she began to volunteer with the local Ministerial Association food bank, a pantry sponsored by an interfaith organization of local clergy. It was there that United Church of Christ pastor, the Rev. William Painter, tracked her down.

Faced with an aging membership that was declining in numbers, Painter’s co-pastor Susan Reed said that Mills County United has “enlivened” the church by becoming its community ally.

“I don’t think there’s any question that her presence and her organization’s presence has transformed us,” Painter said.

“We have always reached out to the community, but it was in not so bold of ways,” Reed said. “For instance, some of the people have gone with Kristy to take meals to people that live in very dire circumstances and that has helped them to see that, ‘Oh, my gosh, there are people like this and we really need to be helping.’”

Throughout the year, Wilson and her team of volunteers organize help for people who might be referred to as the working poor; working-class people who fall through the cracks because they make just a little bit too much to receive assistance from government or nonprofit organizations that require an application process and an income limit.

Kizzie is a mother of three, and her boyfriend is a construction worker who gets laid off every winter. She said the family relies on his unemployment to survive, but unemployment is only a third of what he normally makes. With Kristy’s group, “it’s a very helpful thing and there’s no judgment, that’s what I love about it. No judgment from anybody,” she said.

Kizzie and her 15-year-old daughter, Madyson, often volunteer their time in exchange for the help, though it’s not required.

Mills County United is a community ally of the Ministerial Association food bank, which is one of the few that doesn’t have income requirements for recipients.

“These are not people who come in looking for free handouts. They need it,” Painter said. “They come in in their McDonald’s uniforms or their Shopko uniforms …”

“… or their scrubs,” Wilson added.

Wilson’s job at the County Health Department also helps her identify people in need. When someone qualifies for government assistance, she tries to refer them to the proper agency, but for many people, Mills County United provides a buffer.

The group also is called on to help when there is an emergency, such as someone leaving a domestic violence situation. Recently, a woman had her sister’s children placed with her after they were removed from their home. “The aunt wasn’t prepared for children by any means. She doesn’t have beds for them, she doesn’t have clothes for them, Christmas gifts, none of that,” Wilson said.

The group also hosts community events, sometimes in collaboration with its community allies. When middle-class kids are frolicking at pumpkin patches in the autumn, many other families can’t afford those life experiences for their children. Mills County United organized a free fall festival in the park complete with pony rides, a pie-eating contest, family photos and a food stand. They provided donated Halloween costumes for any child who needed one.

Part of Wilson’s ability to empathize comes from her own struggles. She doesn’t have to imagine it. She’s lived it. By the age of 14, she was pregnant with her first child. She supported herself and her oldest son with a waitressing job, where the retired farmers would leave her generous tips. Despite that hard work, Wilson said she also received public assistance at certain times in her life.

Now she’s a mother of three and grandmother of one, and her boyfriend works full time and supports the family. This allows Wilson to have the part-time job with the Health Department and put her energy into her volunteer work.

A frequent concern voiced about Mills County United is that beneficiaries might take advantage of the project. Wilson believes that there is more dignity when someone doesn’t have to jump through hoops when they are desperate for help. However, they also acknowledge the downsides.

“I do think that there are people who at times take advantage of the system,” Wilson said. “But I know my people, I know and I would say 99.5 percent of the time with the people that we serve, they really, really, really, really need the help.”

As for the widowed gas station clerk, Wilson said she’s attending college and moved on to a higher wage job. However, Mills County United is well aware that such upward mobility isn’t within reach for everyone.

Wilson said that she’s known parents who will skip meals so that their kids can eat. Such people are often invisible because they have jobs, live seemingly normal lives and won’t ask for help. She wants them to know that there is help and they should accept it.

“You don’t have to go without,” Wilson said.

___

Information from: The Daily Nonpareil, https://www.nonpareilonline.com

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