NEW CASTLE — Larry is a single, working father of a 13-year-old who had some unforeseen medical bills last month that caused him financial hardship.
Larry couldn’t pay his rent for January.
“Things got really rough and the medical expenses that came in put me in the hole,” he said.
Someone told him about The River Center in New Castle and he gathered up the courage to make a call.
He called and spoke with Mike Peppers, a volunteer at the River Center.
“I told him that I had gotten this number and wondered if he knew of any organization that could help me,” Larry said. “It’s hard to ask for help, because your pride gets involved. I’ve had to do it twice in my life, but sometimes you’ve got to get the strength to ask.”
And Larry was asking the right place. The assistance provided by members of the River Center, which is a faith-based, nonprofit organization, can be summed up in three words: giving, loving and helping.
The River Center is housed where the old First Baptist Church used to be on N. Fourth Street and is owned by a network of churches called “RiverChurches.” The 5,000-square-foot River Center itself is not a church, but provides space for churches to use as well as office and meeting space for other local non-profits, community service organizations and special events in the community. It also acts as a place of refuge for those in need and a place to go for those who love to serve their community.
“We want to create a culture in the community that sometimes you’re on the giving end and sometimes you’re on the receiving end,” said Lee Price, director of the River Center. “At the River Center, you can come in and get help and then sometimes you can volunteer. We want to help our community become better connected and address unmet needs with love and compassion. It’s a place of refuge for people who are hurting and where they can be loved on and get assistance.”
The building, which includes a large community room, office space, kitchen, laundry facilities and a prayer room, was purchased eight years ago and the renovation was completed four years ago.
In 2010, RiverChurches and several volunteers of the community began talking with people from the schools, town government, churches and existing service organizations to find out what the most pressing community needs were. One of the first needs that jumped out was providing school supplies for children. After addressing the need and seeing the overwhelming response from the community, a team was formed from RiverChurches’ staff and volunteers and the River Center was born. As more needs were identified, more volunteers became involved and River Center broke into teams.
The Life Assistance team helps individuals and families in crisis. They are the ones that sit down with people who come in and help to identify the most pressing needs and provide assistance for things such as utilities, prescriptions, gas cards/bus passes and grocery cards. They also provide volunteer labor for individuals and families needing emergency repairs on their houses. If unable to provide immediate help, they will direct the person to where they can find help. The center assisted more than 200 people last year.
The Seniors Outreach team provides a lunch at the center, which sees 15-25 seniors from the community attend each week.
“We saw the need of seniors to connect with each other,” Price said. “The Elk Creek Mining Company, Lazy Bear and New Hope Church provide free food for the lunches.”
The School Outreach Team is responsible for making sure that underprivileged children who are on the schools‘ free and discounted hot lunch program, also have food on the weekends through the Kids Totes of Hope program. Each week, the program provides a bag of non-perishable food for the weekend for between 240 and 250 children, according to school team leader Deb Bonkiewicz.
“They get about 6-8 items,” Bonkiewicz said. “It goes to kids in New Castle and Silt at Elk Creek Elementary, Kathryn Senor Elementary, Riverside Middle School, Cactus Valley Elementary and Coal Ridge High School.
The school team also runs a summer food program for hungry children in New Castle, Apple Tree and Silt. A back-to-school drive provided more than $3,000 in supplies for five schools in the Re-2 school district. The group also provided 90 pairs of snow boots for kids in need at three of the elementary schools, and a winter outerwear drive distributed clothing to more than 350 people at Coal Ridge High School. The Angel Tree Christmas outreach program provided more than 250 gifts to children in December.
“These programs help the kids and their families and we have fun doing it,” Bonkiewicz said.
Price credits the key to the River Center’s success to its volunteers and the partnerships and funding it has received from grants, individuals, businesses corporations, Garfield County and the town of New Castle.
Mayor of New Castle, Frank Breslin, said the town helps out the River Center because it takes care of things the town would have to provide.
“Several years ago, members of our police department were handing out money to people who were in really dire straits,” Breslin said. “They would fork over money out of their own pockets. We don’t give to charitable organizations, but many, many years ago, a town attorney told us we could donate money in lieu of services the town would have to do. The River Center takes care of the youth, the broke and the seniors — and those are all things we would be doing.”
And for adult recipients like Larry, the River Center provides more than just assistance in an emergency. After talking to Larry, Mike Peppers gave him a $200 check to help pay his rent for January, but he gave him something else that will likely last a lifetime.
“Mike didn’t ask any questions and he had a check for me the next day,” Larry said. “He didn’t even know me — I could’ve been anyone. But I was so very, very thankful. And now I have a good feeling — I want to do what he does and help others. I want to be a volunteer. I want to pass it on. It’s called ‘seed-planting’ and it really does grow.”