Issac J. Bailey | Charities help more, harm less

A Different PerspectiveFebruary 7, 2013 

First United Methodist in Myrtle Beach has found numerous ways to help the needy.

But after about a decade, one of its ministries “had become a nightmare,” said Ron Carpenter, the church’s administrator.

First United had been giving away clothes every Monday from 9 a.m. to noon. It began as a labor of love, the kind local churches are known for.

Up to 100 people would line up on the sidewalk every week waiting for the doors to open.

“They would take clothes that they couldn’t wear and try to sell them or just throw them away,” Carpenter said. “On many occasions, we would have fights, smoking, cussing and just poor behavior in general.”

In recent months, First United modified the concept. Instead of giving the clothes away for free, the church began selling them for between 10 cents and $5 an item.

“The change has been remarkable,” Carpenter said. “The volunteers that provide this ministry actually enjoy doing it again. They have almost no problems with the people that shop at the store. It seems that those people that could truly use this ministry had stopped coming when all the trouble started. Now they are back at the store.”

It’s just the kind of change the Waccamaw Community Foundation and the city of Myrtle Beach envisioned when they brought Robert Lupton to Myrtle Beach last summer.

Lupton is philanthropist, businessman and author of “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help and How to Reverse It.”

He came as part of an effort to better coordinator services for needy families.

“It hasn’t changed things across-the-board yet, but I’ve heard that some have changed their operational model, with excellent results,” said city spokesman Mark Kruea.

Lupton’s primary message was that the instinct to help is a good one, but that it must not rob a person of dignity or create dependency. That’s where First United got the idea to turn its clothes closet into a thrift store.

For those who missed his presentation, they can catch it again on March 13 during a pre-conference workshop of the annual meeting of the S.C. Association of Nonprofit Organizations in Greenville, said Sam Cook of the Waccamaw Community Foundation.

“We have seen several individuals and organizations endorse Lupton’s ideas,” Cook said.

Churches and organizations from North Myrtle Beach to Georgetown have been implementing some of the changes, including those who provide job training and other basic needs.

Street Reach has begun to use some of Lupton’s tips to prevent “gaming” of the system and offer better services at a lower cost, said Executive Director Hal Rich.

A common intake system is being established, which will provide “a complete record of all services provided to the client. This will eliminate clients receiving redundant services,” he said.

The Waccamaw Community Foundation wants to ensure the work being done by non-profits “actually empowers people for a better future rather than maintaining them in an unworkable or damaging situation,” Cook said.

During his visit, Lupton noted some of the unintentionally harmful programs at the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club of Conway also had a clothes closet. Before Lupton’s visit, the group would hand needy families vouchers for a limited amount of free clothes occasionally. Now those families purchase items for 25 cents whenever they like.

Bret McElroy, the Corps Officer, said they haven’t been able to fully assess the differences since making the switch in September, but there is evidence that it is working.

“I’ve seen a big change,” said case worker Michele Borbely. She’s been with the Salvation Army for three years. The needy “seem a lot happier, not so embarrassed, like before, when they would ask me for underwear. Now they smile a lot more. They seem prouder.”

Something similar happened this past Christmas when the Salvation Army modified its annual “angel tree” program, which helps roughly 1,000 families a year.

For the first time, the parents who qualified for help had to volunteer for four hours in one of the Salvation Army’s five locations in Horry County.

They received a volunteer card instead of a gift voucher for their work.

“To our surprise, we did not get many objections,” said Executive Director Brenda Ryan. “We actually saw some excitement in the parents-guardians. We heard them say things like, ‘It was like I was able to give back and not just take’ and ‘I want to help any way I can but never know how to’.”

A single mother said she wanted to volunteer during the entire 2013 Christmas season.

Some had difficulty finding transportation to the volunteer sites, but overall the program was a success, Ryan said.

The group is still thinking through how best to incorporate more of Lupton’s suggestions.

“This can be very difficult to incorporate,” McElroy said. “Trying to find ways to make changes is a challenge.”

Contact ISSAC J. BAILEY at ibailey@thesunnews.com or at Twitter at @TSN_IssacBailey.

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