When Julia Posey heads to Avondale United Methodist Church’s Avondale Samaritan Place on Monday mornings, she knows she is going to be fed — both physically and spiritually.
Posey, a retiree, is both a volunteer and a recipient in the Samaritan Place’s Brown Bag ministry, which provides community members with bags of groceries and a chance to engage with others.
“It means fellowship, benefits in various ways. It means an outing once a week,” she says. “It is helping others.”
Posey says the Brown Bag program means much more to her than the paper sack of groceries she can receive twice a month. “I have two ears like you do, and I know how to use them. … I am a listener. That’s what most people need today.”
At 9 a.m. on Mondays, about 50 recipients and several volunteers gather at Samaritan Place, located in the church’s gymnasium. The volunteers prepare a brunch of fruit, pastries and grits to be served to the community members who come. Groups gather around large round tables and socialize until a volunteer leader says it is prayer time.
Participants talk about prayer concerns and, sometimes, stand and sing hymns. Rev. Brandon Harris, the church’s pastor, speaks to the participants and prays with them.
Harris is pleased with the activities taking place at his church because of a partnership with Mountain Brook’s Canterbury United Methodist Church. Canterbury was doing community service programs and had identified Avondale as an area where it could use its resources.
Avondale UMC was open to the idea. “We felt God had put us in a community with a lot of opportunities,” Harris says. The two churches planned for about three years before Samaritan Place opened its doors in August 2013.
The planning process included renovation of the Avondale UMC gym to house the center. Teens from the Youth Works program that is now a part of Samaritan Place helped with the renovation. Youth Works brings groups of teens from as far away as Minnesota to work on community service projects in Birmingham.
“We have three ministries that Canterbury had been doing,” says Adam Guthrie, Samaritan Place’s executive director. The idea was to begin with programs that already were working and then to listen to the community to see what else was needed, he says.
Harris says the idea of Samaritan Place is not just to provide services. “We want to see people in the community get plugged into service,” he says. “We want to help channel community members into serving their neighbors.”
The Brown Bag ministry involves volunteers who not only serve brunch and hand out bags, but who also prepare the bags on Sunday afternoons. Guthrie says the ministry provides bags to 50 individuals each week. Each person can get a bag twice a month.
Participants have to register, but the ministry is open to anyone who lives in the 35212 or 35222 zip codes that include areas like Avondale, Woodlawn and eastern neighborhoods as well.
Guthrie says each bag contains about $25 worth of groceries, which Samaritan Place buys at the Piggly Wiggly on Clairmont Avenue. “If we buy those 50 bags each week, they might hire one more person from the community. It’s a cycle,” he says.
Recipients also are given donated bread and pastry from Panera Bread and items given by the Christian Service Mission. The bags are intended to feed a family of four for three days and include items that can be used to make meals instead of just random things. “It’s thought out,” says Guthrie.
Harris says the Brown Bag program spends $65,000 a year on food.
Volunteers are key to another Samaritan Place program, Carpenter’s Hands, which performs minor home repairs for homeowners. The program was started about eight years ago and was moved to Samaritan Place.
“We look at it more from a safety perspective,” Guthrie says. Many Carpenter’s Hands projects are things that allow people to remain in their homes. “Wheelchair ramps are our favorite thing to do,” he says. Replacing rotten kitchen and bathroom floors is also common.
He says Samaritan Place pays a project manager who knows building codes and gets all necessary building permits, but volunteers do most of the actual work on homes.
Four volunteers also spend every Wednesday making cabinets that are needed for the projects.
Guthrie says other organizations tend to overlook small projects that can make a big difference to homeowners. For example, an elderly woman’s home had squirrels in the attic. Carpenter’s Hands volunteers trapped and removed the squirrels and then repaired the holes where the squirrels were entering.
“No other organization would have entertained that,” he says. Carpenter’s Hands worked on 109 houses in 2013.
Guthrie says the repair work is done free of charge and without proselytizing. “Some organizations will go in and preach. We choose not to do that,” he says. “Our actions should speak loud enough.”
The third program is Beeson Senior Services, which is funded by a trust fund managed by Canterbury UMC. The program started about five years ago at Urban Ministry in West End and was expanded into Avondale when Samaritan Place opened.
One part-time and two full-time social workers split their work between Avondale and West End, helping senior citizens with a wide variety of issues that help them remain in their homes and living independently as long as possible.
Social worker Camilla Gaines says, “We assist with medical, food and transportation issues and utility assistance.”
She says the program has 80 to 90 clients who get regular visits from the social workers, who take them to doctor’s appointments and assist with medicine regimens and other needs. Plus, she says, they provide short-term assistance and answer questions for dozens of people who call or come in every week.
“We give them hope. We are a listening ear,” Gaines says. “We link them with other agencies.”
A new program this summer will be a free day camp at nearby Avondale Park, Harris says. Youth Works will run the program, which will include crafts, games and recreational activities from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Activities will be moved to Avondale UMC on rainy days. For more information on the day camp, click here.
Meanwhile, Samaritan Place is raising funds for a joint project with Birmingham Audubon. Plans call for restoration of the rose garden at Avondale Park and development of a habitat garden there.
And, true to the idea when Samaritan Place opened, Guthrie, Harris and others are talking with other organizations about operating youth programs there.
Harris says Samaritan Place is supported by both his church and Canterbury UMC, including donations from members of both churches. “Our churches are committed to seeing this succeed,” he says. “We are seeing fruit from it, and I think it shows the Lord is blessing us.”
Lillie Cole sees Samaritan Place as a blessing for herself and the community. Like Posey, she is both a recipient and volunteer in the Brown Bag program. “It has helped me spiritually,” she says. “I have a stronger outlook on helping each other. I have been able to develop a relationship with the people who attend.”
Cole, who is president of the East Birmingham Community, says she frequently tells others about Samaritan Place. She is impressed with the programs and says that, of 19 churches in the Kingston neighborhood, only one does programs that serve the neighborhood.
“Some of the bigger churches don’t do this kind of program,” she says.
Both Cole and Posey enjoy helping others through Samaritan Place. Posey says, “That’s my goal: to help someone who needs my help.”
For more information, visit asplace.org.