Woman uses own struggle to bestow blessings
HUNTINGTON — What they do seems like it should be impossible.
With just under a dozen regular church members and about the same amount of volunteers, the Grace Food Pantry and Community Outreach Ministry at the United Methodist Church in Guyandotte serves more than 27,000 community members in a given year.
“It’s a God thing,” said Connie Miller, the director of the ministry.
Miller started the food pantry and outreach in 2012. For two years prior, she had been mulling the idea around in her head, listening to God push her in that direction.
“We were in church and it seemed like the whole entire service was directed at me so I looked at my husband and said, ‘OK, we are having a food pantry. I’m going to do this,’” she said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Now shut up about it,’ because that went on for two years.”
A breast cancer survivor, Miller knows what it’s like to struggle. Upon her diagnosis, she left her job at the Cabell County Board of Education where she and her husband, Paul, both worked, bringing them to a one-income household with biological and foster children to care for.
“We struggled horribly bad, but I didn’t know what kind of help was available so we suffered through it,” Miller said.
Later in life, she watched as her son returned from two tours in Iraq only to be left homeless with two children to care for.
Then she cared for her elderly parents who lived on limited means.
Those life experiences guide how Miller runs the outreach ministry.
“When God puts something on your heart, you have to do it,” she said.
The food pantry is open every Wednesday for those in need, often referred there by Information and Referral. With newly added work requirements to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Miller said they are seeing more clients now, partly because she doesn’t think people realize they can volunteer to qualify. They also see a lot of people toward the end of the month to supplement SNAP.
The pantry also feeds 150 children at four area elementary schools through a backpack program called Connie’s Kids Club, named by the kids themselves. The program feeds the students all year long, providing a lunch, courtesy of Cabell County Schools, in the summer and a hot meal every other Saturday.
If they know a student has siblings at home, they pack the backpack with extra. At Christmas, they get them all presents.
Miller lights up even brighter when she talks about “her kids.”
“Through the years you see these little ones growing up and leaving the nest,” Miller said. “It’s sad but it’s exciting too because you know you’ve made that difference in their life.”
Miller works hard to ensure the backpacks are stuffed with nutritious food. Instead of peanut butter crackers, they get packages of peanut butter and a package of crackers. Chef Boyardee uses real vegetables as compared to the generic brand so they strive to get the name brand. Fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to come by, but are a welcome treat when they have them.
“Proper nutrition is extremely important in a young child’s life,” she said. “That’s when everything is learning and growing. Proper nutrition for anyone who is learning (is important).”
Miller also works to get the parents involved.
“We get kids that come alone and those are the ones I reach out to the most because I want their parents to be involved,” she said. “Family is very important. If I can help the parents accomplish little tiny goals, even if it’s to come here and put in an application for a job.
As for veterans, the ministry works with the Hershel Woody Williams Huntington VA Medical Center. When homeless veterans are housed, the pantry stocks the shelves in their new home with food.
Seniors are eligible for a senior box, which is distributed once a month. It supplements what they already can get from the pantry, and is filled with things like juice, beans, canned fruit and cheese.
Her mother, who recently passed away, loved to sit at the pantry and talk with the other seniors that came in.
Miller wants to ensure every person who walks through the threshold of the church leaves with more than just food.
They give out recipe cards that correspond to what’s in the basket that week, which the clients get excited about, she said. They often come back and share what they made. They open up computers so people can apply for jobs or assistance, helping them along the way. They give out coupons and help people coupon.
Most important, however, Miller wants them to know they are loved.
“You may walk in a stranger, but you leave as family,” she said.
“There’s nobody that should ever come through my doors and feel less than what they truly are because they are more special than anybody. A mother struggling to feed four kids and she looks ragged - no. When she leaves, I want her to know she’s loved and she’s special and she’s beautiful and she can accomplish great things even though she feels like she can’t.”
The outreach is funded through fundraisers like spaghetti dinner and bake sales, canned food drives at area businesses and donations.
When the shelves get low, someone or something always comes through. Like just last month when the freezers died, ruining all of the meat they had frozen. Someone donated new freezers just in time for Thanksgiving.
“When he put it on my heart to do it, I came up with every excuse possible not to,” Miller said. “But (God) said if I do it, he will supply the food and I will supply the people. I never have to worry. Just as sure as we are so low, something always comes through.”
She hopes they will qualify for some grants in the future, but until then, they run on the power of God and the power of community.
Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 3007, Huntington, WV 25702, or through PayPal at Grace Food Pantry. The pantry is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.