City Gospel Mission takes new approach with Thanksgiving Exchange to help families in need

'They have skin in the game'

CINCINNATI — This Thanksgiving, 375 local families living in poverty will get all they need for their holiday meal — along with a heaping helping of dignity.

City Gospel Mission is requiring families that participate in its annual Thanksgiving Exchange to pay $10 toward the cost of the food they receive.

For their money, participants can shop for the items they want at a temporary store in Queensgate instead of getting a prepackaged box or basket of food that could include things their family doesn't eat.

"We're trying to help the family provide their celebration," said Roger Howell, president of City Gospel Mission, a faith-based nonprofit with a variety of programs aimed at helping people in poverty.

"They have skin in the game and their dignity."

The change in City Gospel Mission's Thanksgiving ministry is based on the philosophies explained in the book "When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself." The book stresses that it takes more than donations and handouts to alleviate poverty, and its authors encourage efforts to empower people who don't have a lot of money while recognizing their dignity and worth.

City Gospel Mission leaders decided to change Thanksgiving Exchange to make it more like the organization's Christmas Store. At the store, low-income parents pay $8 per child and choose one new toy and one new clothing item. Parents get gifts worth about $40 and can pick out exactly what their children want and need. Volunteers help the parents shop and wrap the gifts.

But despite the success of the Christmas Store, the Thanksgiving change hasn't been easy. City Gospel Mission first tried it last year, with disastrous results.

Far more families signed up to participate in the new approach than the organization anticipated, Howell said. And a lot of donors withheld their donations because they liked the old way of doing things — where they got to assemble an entire basket of food to donate to a family.

"It was extremely hard to communicate to people who had been used to the basket idea that we needed them to go buy some supplies for a store," Howell said.

'It Was Very Painful'

Before City Gospel Mission switched its strategy, the organization had about 3,000 needy families that it served each year with help from 80 church partners, said Angela Allen, vice president of church partnerships.

Last year, 50 church partners referred needy families to the retooled Thanksgiving program, and nearly 1,500 families signed up to shop, she said.

City Gospel Mission ended up with only 5 percent of the donations the organization required to meet that need. The organization ended up spending $30,000 to buy fresh vegetables and meat for all the families that paid $10 expecting a full meal, Allen said.

Carrots and potatoes for this year's exchange.

In years past, the organization only had spent about $500 per year to purchase food that wasn't donated.

As difficult as it was, though, City Gospel Mission's partner churches stood behind the change and committed to help make the Thanksgiving Exchange better this year, she said.

For this Thanksgiving, City Gospel Mission set a limit of 500 families to help and was much more aggressive in seeking donations for its store.

The organization had 375 shoppers register for the program, Allen said.

For $10, each shopper received either a turkey or a ham and about 40 different food items of their choice. Options included fresh carrots, potatoes and onions, dinner rolls, stuffing mix, canned vegetables, coffee and cake mix. Peanut butter, spaghetti sauce and pasta also were available for families who wanted food that would last beyond the holiday leftovers.

The families who participate — and the churches that refer them to City Gospel Mission — have embraced the change, Allen said.

Pasta and sauce are available.

Spending $70 on groceries for a nice Thanksgiving meal can be financially crippling for families who have a $300 monthly food budget, she said.

"It's sort of like the community is coming around them and saying, 'You do your part, and we'll help you celebrate with your families,'" Allen said.

'We Have to Show Love'

Phillita Beeks knows first hand how important it is for families to maintain their dignity while getting some help.

Beeks was a customer at City Gospel Mission's Christmas Store years ago when her kids were young and she was having a difficult time making ends meet.

Her son had special needs, and the Christmas Store gave her the opportunity to select educational toys that would help with his development, she said.

Phillita Beeks training volunteers.

She started volunteering at the store and soon became one of the store managers. When Allen began thinking she wanted to take the new approach for the Thanksgiving Exchange, she asked Beeks for help and advice.

Now, Beeks manages the Thanksgiving Exchange, explaining the system to scores of volunteers and trouble shooting whenever there is confusion.

"We have to show love. That's really what our volunteers do," Beeks said. "We show love to the people while they're here — that encourages dignity as well."

That love was on display during the first day the Thanksgiving Exchange store was open Nov. 16. Volunteers helped shoppers make their selections based on forms they had filled out. They bagged and boxed canned goods, boxed mixes, jars and everything else so that nothing would be crushed or spoiled.

After getting their turkeys or hams from a truck outside, shoppers got help loading everything, too.

The truck loaded with turkey, ham and butter.

A retired kindergarten teacher called the exchange "wonderful" after she finished her shopping, although she didn't want to give her name.

The woman has grown children of her own, she said, but is now also raising three foster kids whose biological mom comes in and out of their lives.

The people who seek help from City Gospel Mission generally have some money, like that retired teacher, Allen said. And they're working hard to provide for their families.

The key is to offer support without looking down on anyone, and that's what the new Thanksgiving Exchange approach is all about.

"We're just walking beside each other," Allen said. "We're not handing anything down or handing anything up."

A volunteer helps a Thanksgiving Exchange shopper.

For more information about City Gospel Mission, click here.

For more information about the Thanksgiving Exchange, click here.

For more information about the Christmas Store, click here.

To donate to City Gospel Mission, click here.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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