After 50 years serving the Greenville community, United Ministries was poised for a promising anniversary celebration. Organizers had sold 1,700 tickets for the fifth annual Uniting for Change Luncheon. Then the April event, with keynote speaker Brian Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy,” had to be postponed due to COVID-19.
Also in April, the nonprofit welcomed a new executive director, Lizzie Bebber. With the majority of her staff working remotely, Bebber was disappointed that she had met so few of them in person. Working on-site or off, they have continued to check in with current and former participants, getting them connected to services including crisis assistance, homeless services, education and employment readiness to foster long-term self-sufficiency.
As of mid-May, United Ministries had seen a 300% increase in the need for food and 25% increase in participant appointments in its employment readiness program. The financial services coordinator has seen more participants who have lost jobs and need help creating a plan to survive.
“Not only is this crisis hitting individuals and families in a significant financial way, but people are hurting,” says Bebber. “They’re lonely and isolated, and our staff know that, and they know the value of those connections. Right now, it’s harder to provide the one-on-one connection with participants that we are so known for, but our dedicated staff is creating ways to make it work.”
Through a partnership with United Way and support from local donors, United Ministries helped place over 50 families in motels for emergency shelter at the start of the pandemic as a limited service. They also restructured several existing programs to better serve people’s needs. Emergency Assistance began offering drive-thru pickups for food and phone appointments for rental/utility assistance, which has resulted in offering five times the amount of support than before COVID-19. The day shelter, Place of Hope, which provides bathrooms and showers for those experiencing homelessness, now opens earlier to accommodate more people while limiting the number inside. The integrated services programs are using online tools for intake interviews, mental health counseling and GED tutoring.
Bebber says these adjustments push the organization to embrace more creative solutions going forward. For example, combining on-site and online learning may make its GED program more accessible to people across the county.
“I believe we are made for such a time as this,” she says. “While I wish the situation in the world was different, I can’t imagine a better time to get to the heart of what’s important in our community than a time like the one we’re navigating right now.”
The organization where Bebber last served was forged in another crisis. Christ House, a freestanding medical respite center in Washington, D.C., was founded during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. She and her husband, Eric Bebber, both ordained Baptist ministers, and their two young children lived on-site for a decade with formerly homeless men.
“The men at Christ House became family for us,” says Bebber. “That experience gave me real insight into the hurdles faced by people who are born into something they have no control over. It was such a rich experience. We will be forever grateful for that time working together.”
Bebber says she was drawn to United Ministries’ history of thoughtful, resilient and adaptive response to the needs of the community.
“I’m struck by the way the staff and volunteers work alongside participants with dignity and care,” she says. “I am also excited to learn more about the ways the Greenville community is known for its generosity, with a willingness to come together.”
She looks forward to leading United Ministries into the next 50 years with a vision guided by empathy and informed by the voices of the participants.
“We have data around homelessness, poverty and racial inequality, and there are lives attached to every bit of that data,” says Bebber. “I want us to continually ask how we can reframe a narrative where the lives of the poor and vulnerable are deeply valued, so that our choices as a community represent those values. United Ministries is positioned to be a continued leader in supporting compassionate, transformative change in Greenville.”
Bob Morris, president of the Community Foundation of Greenville, agrees: “The Community Foundation has made grants totaling more than $99,000 to United Ministries in support of employment readiness, adult education, transportation assistance and homeless services. We are proud to support their work as they continue to meet the needs of those they serve.”