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Austin American-Statesman.com, Nov. 21st 2013

Nov. 21, 2013, noon · 0 comments

Cedar Park church meeting the need of families in crisis

Hill Country Nazarene has quietly provided food, clothing to community for 3 years

Austin, TX

By Mike Parker

Austin Community Newspapers Staff

Volunteers at Hill Country Nazarene Church in Cedar Park have quietly worked over the past three years to fulfill a critical need.

The unpaid volunteers head to the church on Bagdad Road every Monday and Tuesday to cheerfully arrange and distribute food to hundreds of families. Pastor Joe Bob Ellison said most volunteers rarely miss a week.

“More than half have been here since the beginning,” he said. “I can’t get them to take a week off.”

Those volunteers have helped the food pantry grow from a humble program to the large enterprise it is today. Ellison said the food pantry last year served more than 16,000 families, which equated to more than 500 tons of distributed food.

“It just blows my mind every single week, and I’ve seen it for almost three-and-a-half years,” he said.

Every week since September 2010, the church has been transformed into a scene reminiscent of an indoors grocery market. Visitors fill the main hall, which holds tables full of bread, vegetables, fruit and bags of canned goods.

Lorene Watkins, a volunteer who herself received help from the church, said families get to the church as early as 5 a.m. to receive food and clothing.

“We all know the families are coming here and not going home hungry,” she said.

Ellison called it the best-kept secret in Williamson County.

“We tell people all the time we serve up to 350-450 families a week, but we always tell them you have to see it,” he said.

On Tuesday, adults and children filled sets of chairs that would normally hold the church’s congregation. Every adult gave personal information that is added to Charity Tracker, a database used by churches and food pantries throughout the area. After being given a number, they waited patiently for their turn to receive the much-needed groceries.

Ellison said all walks of life have headed to the church in times of crisis. One man had worked at Dell Inc. and received a six-figure salary until being laid off, he said. After six months of unemployment, he found help at the church.

“As a former chaplain, I’ve been to way too many suicides,” Ellison said. “And that guy was way too close to that, because he was worth more financially to his family dead than alive.”

The man received help not only through groceries but also from the love and encouragement volunteers gave him during his visits. Today, Ellison said the man is employed and able to once again take care of his family.

“The only way he was able to do that was by us helping him bridge that gap,” he said.

Linda Starnes, who has volunteered at the church for more than two years, said all walks of life seek help at the church.

“Very few, probably only 2 percent, are taking advantage of the system,” she said. “Most people who need help have a disability or just lost their job.”

Starnes decided to volunteer after retiring as a state employee. She worked in the Victim Services Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which made her particularly equipped to handle people in the midst of crisis.

“Honestly, it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and I’m not just saying that,” she said of her volunteer work.

The welcoming environment, which is devoid of judgment from volunteers, is what brings families back to the church, she said.

“We give them love and respect,” Starnes said. “That’s a free thing.”

The visitors range in age and background. On Tuesday, volunteers wandered throughout the crowd, hugging previous visitors and commiserating with others who are facing hard times.

An elderly man, who stood at the back of the crowd, seemed overwhelmed.

“I’m ashamed to be here, and I’m happy you are here for my need,” he said, speaking loudly to the volunteers.

The large crowd that fills the church mirrors recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. The family poverty rate rose from 3 percent to 5.6 percent in Cedar Park and 3.5 percent 5.7 percent in Leander, according to the survey. The study defined poverty as someone whose income is below the federal threshold, about $21,000 for a family of three.

Jon Marotz said he envisioned the church having a food pantry when he saw a similar program at his previous church in South Austin. Ellison said Marotz told him “God was telling him to start something.”

But Ellison was wary of starting such a large endeavor.

“A lot of times churches and people jump into stuff, and then they get burned out,” he said. “And then they stop doing it, and the only people who get hurt are the ones you are trying to serve.”

But after a year of planning, the church opened its doors to families. The first week hosted six families, and from there, “it just blew up,” he said.

“The only reason we’re able to do this is God provided,” he said. “There is no other pantry I’ve ever seen that steps out on faith like ours has.”

Marotz agreed, saying the presence of a higher power is what allows the pantry to keep up with the demand.

“We never once had to turn anyone anyway. I can guarantee that is not a coincidence,” he said.

The pantry receives donations and help from a variety of sources. Hill Country Bible Church Austin sends volunteers to the church every week, and food is purchased or donated through the Capital Area Food Bank. Anyone from individuals to groups of middle school students donate money or hold fundraisers benefiting the pantry.

Ellison said on Monday a volunteer from NetApp, a local data storage company, decided to write a $6,000 check to the church. The donation will help the church serve more than 4,000 people expecting to attend the Share Your Blessings Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday.

“Wow. It’s powerful,” Ellison said about the donation. “(But) I don’t freak out, because every year we have stories like that.”

Ellison explained that the church is simply being “the hands and feet of Christ,” a sentiment he hoped to see in other congregations.

“We’re not talking about making a difference in our community,” he said. “We’re actually making a difference in our community.”

Here's a link to the original article.

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