“It’s been a gift” Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry celebrates 25th anniversary thanks to the community

Published 11:42 am Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Outreach volunteers and former volunteers at our annual volunteer luncheon a few years back are Cherie Brooks, Marguerite Huggins, Dorcas Epley and Elaine Haines.

Outreach volunteers and former volunteers at our annual volunteer luncheon a few years back are Cherie Brooks, Marguerite Huggins, Dorcas Epley and Elaine Haines.

By Michael O’Hearn

Photos submitted by George B. Alley

We all know classic Beatles tunes like “Come Together” and “Imagine.” For years, these iconic hits have played on the radio and tell stories of mankind working together to help one another. In our community, it took some imagination by visionary people, and the dedication of volunteers coming together, to make a much needed ministry a reality – a reality that is now 25 years old and counting.

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In September 1991, founder Eloise Thwing created the Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry, a coalition of local churches tasked with helping the community in need. Whether by providing food, financial support for bills or enough wood to get a family through the winter, the ministry known simply as “Outreach” provided support to those in Polk County in need.


To celebrate the milestone anniversary, its new executive director George Alley said he and his board discussed various ideas ranging from a cookout to a fundraiser to promote awareness of the ministry. The ministry ultimately decided to invite the community to come see the facility and to thank them for their support over the last quarter century.


“For me, it’s always been about where we’ve come in 25 years to what we will be doing in the next 25,” Alley explained. “We find that when we get people to come in here, it makes a big impact on them when they see the food pantry and see the people coming in.”


An open house date has been set for Tuesday, June 28 from 2-5 p.m. for people to come in and learn about the ministry and how they can get involved with Alley and his team of volunteers.


The early days

Founded in September 1991 by Eloise Thwing, the Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry was a coalition of local churches tasked with helping the community in need.


The following year, Thwing wrote in her reflection letter to the board that the first year had been “a very challenging, but successful year” and added that she saw a need for the services provided by her and Outreach in the community. “Our work has just begun,” Thwing penned in the closing statement of her letter.


“We need to meet the needs of existing helping agencies and area churches to better coordinate their services,” Thwing explained. “It would be in the best interest of all for the Ministry to serve the client with our financial assistance in addition to other resources available in the community.”


At the time, Outreach operated out of the Columbus Methodist Church under the direction of Rev. Tony Sayer with a board comprised of Church Women United and local church members. Seven years later, the ministry moved to its current location at 134 White Drive in Columbus, thanks to a grant by the Polk County Community Foundation. Thwing spearheaded the ministry until she retired in 2009.


“Outreach was founded based upon a five-year study done by Church Women United in the late 1980s,” Alley, current executive director of Outreach, said. “Churches across the nation were doing what churches do now with food pantries, things of that nature, financial assistance. And I’m guessing they all looked at each other and asked, ‘Aren’t we all doing the same thing here?’”


Polk’s needs

This study by Church Women United determined there was a need in Polk County despite the organization’s statistics showing a high concentration of wealth in the Tryon area.


“Polk County was in the top 10 percent of poverty in the state after you slice away the small group of wealthy people that were living here,” Alley explained. “Despite that, there were a lot of people still hurting.”


Outreach reported a budget of $14,000 and a total of 150 family visits within the first year. Now, after 25 years, nearly 4,000 visits were made last year with just more than $1 million in the budget, according to Alley.


Throughout the years, Outreach has worked with community churches to establish programs such as the Share the Warmth and School Supply programs. Dave’s Food Pantry was established in 2013 and a garden to provide food to community members who can’t afford to feed themselves is available.


In 2004, Outreach conducted a study in the county on housing costs. As a result, low-incoming housing apartments in Columbus, known as Ashley Meadows near Polk County High School, were built. Affordable housing, along with home repairs, are something Alley said he sees being a big need in the future as well.


The gift of giving

Carol Newton was the organization’s second executive director, from 2010 to 2015, and described working at the ministry as a gift after founder Eloise Thwing’s retirement in 2009.


“My experience was a real gift to me and Outreach is a gift to the community,” Newton said. “It is for those who do not have the capacity to provide for themselves and for people who have little work which is low paying and mouths to feed. It hasn’t changed my life, it has enriched it.”


With tears in her eyes, Newton explained her time with the ministry as “eye-opening” and has been especially helpful for those who do not have options.


“There was a time when I remember a man coming to Outreach late into the night before Thanksgiving one year,” Newton said. “He needed a turkey, and Outreach made sure he had one for he and his family the following day. Instances like that make the ministry a great place.”


Special programs for Christmas and Thanksgiving began in 1995. More than 1,000 families and individuals in the county were helped during the holidays within the first year.


Today and forward for the next 25

The ministry currently has five and a half full time employees and 67 active volunteers working around the clock to ensure the needs of the community are met. Alley has been the executive director of Outreach for a year following Newton’s departure in 2015.


Dave Scherping is the president of Outreach board. He also serves as the technology director for the Polk County Schools system.


“The organization is a great organization that serves our community here and I’m happy to serve on it,” Scherping said. “One of the biggest things we do is fundraising in order to meet the needs of the community. For example, my wife and I teach a ballroom dancing class that we use as a fundraiser for the organization.”


In his time with Outreach, Scherping said he has become more aware of the needs prevalent in the community.


“I work with the schools and I see the needs of our kids and the families from that side, but it has given me one more opportunity to see the poverty needs and the other needs that our community have,” Scherping explained. “We’ve been able to survive 25 years under the goal the churches had at the start of it being a community-based organization, and it still is.”


Alley echoed Scherping’s statement and said this past year as executive director has made one thing obvious to him, and that is how much the ministry means to the area.


“In my time here, it has become apparent to me that this organization is just as important to the volunteers and everyone who has given to it over the years as it is to clients and the receivers,” Alley said. “It’s important to the people in the community.”


For more information about the 25th anniversary open house, visit tboutreach.org, call 828-894-2988 or email George Alley at george.alley@tboutreach.org.