2009-11-19 / Front Page

‘It could happen to you’

Island’s needy often hesitant to ask for help
By Dara Chadwick

Lovely homes, ocean views and thriving community connections: This is the reality of island life for many Jamestown residents. But scratch a little deeper, beneath the surface, and you’ll find another, less talked-about side of Jamestown: Need.

The young family that lives next door may be facing foreclosure on their home. Rising healthcare and insurance costs might mean that the elderly lady you pass in town each day has to skip her medication. And the young father facing a devastating illness may be losing sleep each night, worrying about how his family will survive if the worst should happen.

These are the faces of need in Jamestown. But they’re faces that are often hidden.

“There are families in Jamestown who don’t have the financial resources we assume people in Jamestown have,” said Rev. Kathryn Palen, pastor of Central Baptist Church. “And in a small town, there is often shame attached to asking for help.”

Palen said she has seen an increasing level of need lately, thanks to rising taxes, decreasing pensions — particularly among elderly residents who lost money this year in the stock market, and ballooning costs that affect residents on a fixed income.

“Healthcare is also a huge issue,” she said. “And it’s becoming a larger issue.”

Complicating the increasing level of need is the fact that Jamestown is so small and that it is isolated from more urban areas, where assistance tends to be more readily available, Palen said.

In Jamestown, people who need assistance often wonder, “Is there somewhere I can go where I can be anonymous?” she said. “In a small community, what should be confidential—or what could be anonymous—is not.”

Rev. Kevin Lloyd, rector at St. Matthew’s Church, said he has also seen a significant increase in people needing assistance.

“There’s definitely need in Jamestown,” he said. “And always, depending on the circumstances or individuals, there’s going to be some sense of embarrassment or shame.”

Statistically, Jamestown’s needy population doesn’t seem overly large. Just 20 of the island’s 441 public school students receive free lunch, with an additional four students eligible for reduced lunch, according to the superintendent’s office.

But such measurements often require individuals to reach out for help, and don’t take into account families who might qualify, but don’t apply.

“It’s important for folks to know there are resources out there,” said Lloyd. “The churches are a good starting point for many people.”

At Central Baptist Church, monthly collections of food and toiletry items are taken and donated to Bridges Inc., which runs two group homes in Jamestown and maintains a food bank for residents associated with its programs.

Palen said the congregation also collects a monthly benevolence fund and that she maintains a pastor’s “discretionary” fund. Those monies aren’t earmarked only for church members, she said, adding that she has used them to help people pay utility bills and for groceries.

But, Palen said, reaching out for help from the church requires a plan.

“They can come and talk with me,” she said, adding that she then determines if the church can be helpful and if the individual or family has a plan in place. The main question, she said, is “How are you not going to be in the same situation next month?”

Lloyd said that St. Matthew’s Church also has a pastor’s discretionary fund and that those monies provide some privacy to families and individuals in need. The church also takes various offerings, collects food for community organizations and runs a thrift shop twice a week that sells clothing, shoes and home items, among other things.

Additionally, Lloyd also oversees the Kit Wright fund, named for a long-time church member, which provides financial assistance to the people of Jamestown. The fund is in the care of all three of the town’s churches—Central Baptist, St. Matthew’s and St. Mark—and is designated specifi- cally for Jamestown residents.

“We won’t write a check to an individual,” said Lloyd, adding that the three clergy members confer with each other about the fund’s use. Instead, he said, checks are written to pay specific bills or obligations.

“We get a grant each year, and it’s handled by the Rhode Island Foundation,” he added.

Beyond financial help, St. Mark Church also runs a nondenominational food closet here in town, according to Kathy Brownell, a member of the St. Mark Outreach Program.

“If someone calls and says that they are in need, someone will meet them and take them into the food closet,” she said, adding that because of storage considerations, the food closet supplies only non-perishable items.

Brownell said she has seen need increasing lately in Jamestown.

“I see a mom and dad who are both working, I see single moms, I see one-income families,” she said. “Someone who’s in need isn’t always poor. Jobs, illnesses and other circumstances can all have a big effect.”

Brownell said that this year’s list of Thanksgiving basket recipients here in Jamestown is “well over 30.”

“The school nurse has been very helpful in identifying families,” she said. If a family is identifi ed as a potential basket recipient, someone will call and say, “Your name was given to us as someone who could maybe use a Thanksgiving basket.”

“Sometimes, they’ll say, ‘No thank you, we’re fine’ or ‘Please give it to someone else who can use it,’” she said.

The important thing, according to Palen, is that people know that resources are available in times of need—and that there’s no shame in reaching out.

“Beyond what our congregations can do, we can help people find other avenues of assistance,” she said. “We can educate them, and be an advocate for them.”

Lloyd agreed, adding, “We can’t always provide what they want or need, but we can help connect them with other resources.”

Maggie Grenier, general public assistance director for the town of Jamestown, said her job is to refer people to the right agencies. She has helped families get assistance with food and fuel costs, and has also referred individuals who need help paying for health care.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve heard from people that have never called me before,” she said. “And last summer, we had homeless people living over at Ft. Getty. A lot of people don’t realize this – they think Jamestown is affluent.”

Grenier said she has also referred people who’ve become disabled because of a heart attack or other health issue, as well as those who’ve lost jobs or been laid off.

“I had a couple last year that asked for help,” she said. “And they were so embarrassed to do it.”

But needing help is no cause for shame, according to Grenier.

“It’s your everyday person,” she said. “It can happen to me. It can happen to you.”

It’s important for community members to look out for each other, Brownell said, adding that if you think a family might be in need, you can discreetly supply a name to the St. Mark Outreach Program and someone will call.

“Sometimes you get a vision in your mind of what somebody who’s poor looks like,” she said. “These people aren’t poor. At different times in your life, you might need help. It may be you. It may be your neighbor.”

Where to get help

Maggie Grenier, public assistance director: 423-0175

Central Baptist Church: 423-1651

St. Mark Church: 423-1421

St. Matthew’s Church: 423-1762

Jamestown Medical Fund: www.jamestownmedicalfund. org

Anyone wishing to donate to these organizations should also get in touch.

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