“The little house with the big heart.’’
That’s the very fitting description of United Christian Ministries, located at 191 Skyland Drive.
For 30 years UCM has been a shoulder to lean on, a helping hand, a place to turn to for those in need.
Last year UCM had more than 10,000 client contacts and gave out more than 271,670 pounds of food, 450 school break bags and helped nearly 250 families meet their electric bills.
UCM is a Swiss Army knife type of organization, filling pretty much whatever need arises. On nearly 200 occasions last year the organization handed out diapers. It stepped up to help with transportation, water bills and heating assistance. Household and personal items were provided to those in need nearly 3,000 times.
Shirley Kool, who has been with UCM since its inception and is currently board chair, said the organization’s genesis began with “an ongoing issue with downtown churches. People were going from church to church asking for money for food, as they knew we didn’t have food at the churches. Downtown ministers got together and said ‘we need to start something.’ It ended up being a whole Jackson County support system for organizing a pantry we could send people to when they came knocking on church doors.
“It was strictly a pantry at the beginning; I don’t think we envisioned it lasting 30 years.’’
It did, expanding its mission and reach along the way. Churches from across the county, businesses, individuals and organizations pitched in. A few years in it had grown to the point the purchase of its current home on Skyland Drive became necessary, and UCM began its service as a crisis center.
“One of the things that distinguishes us is the fact that we do counsel our clients,’’ Kool said. “Consequently we help them make better decisions. We don’t just hand them a box of food, we show a very caring face as to our purpose.’’
Steve White, best known in these parts of longtime sports information director for Western Carolina University, got involved with UCM 20 years ago. Like many volunteers he’s a Swiss Army knife in his own right, mowing around the Skyland Drive site to “hauling food from the Manna Food truck to picking up USPS food bags to helping with fundraising events to whatever my wife (Elaine, who has volunteered for 30 years) tells me to do.”
White said, “Every time I go into the building, there are people there looking for assistance for food, clothing, housing, guidance and problem solving. There are also volunteers from all segments of our Jackson County community, especially retirees, looking to help others.”
White said the organization and its volunteers are unsung heroes.
“I venture to guess that a very small percentage of Jackson County’s population knows what UCM does… how it operates… the good that comes from that building, “ White said. “It (UCM) is the epitome of a community helping its people.”
Kathy Cross, who has been with UCM 18 years, serves as the organization’s executive director. She says to mark the official 30th anniversary in the month of June, UCM will have a “30 Somethings’’ celebration. People are urged to donate 30 pennies, 30 dollars, 30 tubes of toothpaste, 30 cans of food, etc. Items can be dropped off at the Skyland Drive site. UCM’s operating hours are Monday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Tuesday 12:30-5 p.m.; Wednesday 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m.- 3 p.m.; and Friday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. For more information call 586-8228.
“We’d like to thank our community for its support for all this time and for the fact it does believe in our mission,” Cross said.
She noted “as the oldest relief agency in the county, we provide a central location for people to ask for help. Sometimes we can’t provide, but we know where to send people if we can’t.
“When I first came to United Christian Ministries I was completely unaware of the needs of some of the residents in our county,” Cross said. “I was raised to live on what you worked out yourself; not realizing that some worked and did no make enough to pay the basic bills. Rent may be more than their monthly income. I soon realized what a boost of a box of groceries meant to them.”