South Side Mission strives to “preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the poor, and in His name to love, feed, house, clothe and teach all those people He sends to [them].”
At 9am on Thursday, February 7th, I began a very fulfilling day at South Side Mission—the “Lighthouse on Laramie”—Peoria’s oldest rescue ministry, tucked away on the city’s south side. After meeting briefly with Meg Newell, the Mission’s director of public relations and marketing, I dove right in to a day that promised many new opportunities and the chance to serve alongside people who spend their lives serving others.
First, Meg and I headed to the Benevolence Center (BC), located in a large building that was originally a VFW lodge. The setup is much like a thrift store, but nothing is ever sold, only given away to “customers” in need. The Center gives out clothing, furniture, appliances and housewares, in addition to food baskets. Mike Parks, a Mission employee, showed us to the pantry, where he gave instructions on what to include in each food basket. We were asked to make up about 20 baskets which would be given away the following day.
Making food baskets was much like shopping for myself: grab a box of cereal, some mac ‘n’ cheese, pasta and sauce, juice, and a good mix of cans of fruit, vegetables, soup and tuna. Mike said to add condiments and a boxed desert to each basket until we ran out. Meg and I then carried the food baskets into the kitchen, where they would later be completed with a package of frozen meat, dairy products and whatever fresh vegetables, bread and non-perishables are available. Each basket is designed to feed a family for a couple of weeks at no cost to recipients—the only restriction is that each family can only receive one basket per month.
Next Meg took me back to the Mission’s main building on Laramie, where I had the chance to work in King’s Kids, a Christian day care service offered free of charge to residents of the 61605 zip code and for a very reasonable rate to those outside it. I was introduced to each classroom, from two-year-olds through pre-kindergartners, and was privileged to work with the three- and four-year-olds, as well as the pre-k class. The atmosphere was full of love, as gentle correction and discipline were used while teaching.
The three-year-olds were learning about colors and animals, and I was privileged to read a story to them. I helped a four-year-old create a beautiful piece of art with paint textured with rice, sand and oil as the class learned about the sense of touch. I also worked with two other children who explored and discussed the feel of play-dough!
When I walked into the pre-kindergarten classroom, the children were sitting on the floor listening to a story told by their teacher, and manager of King’s Kids, Sue Murphy. Their eyes were glued to Miss Sue as she told them the biblical story of Nicodemus. It was especially pleasing to see that the mission of the organization was being carried out in these children’s classrooms with just as much importance as it was in the programs which serve adults.
New Promise Center
After reading a story to the pre-k class, I was whisked away to lead a Bible study for some of the women who live in the New Promise Center—South Side Mission’s homeless shelter. How humbling it was to engage in a conversation on prayer with about 20 of the 65 women who currently reside in the shelter! While it was a mandatory class for those who were not in school or at work at the time, it was obvious that the women in that room felt a deep relief that they had been given such a loving place to call home for a while. Honestly, I still have trouble calling the New Promise Center a homeless shelter; none of the stereotypes associated with shelters seem to be true of this one.
Rev. Linda Butler, director of the New Promise Center, said, “When I think about how to care for the hundreds of homeless women and children we serve every year, I envision Christ Jesus and His housing needs until He was able to return to His eternal home. Those who invited Him in for a meal or a place to sleep comforted Him. Likewise, we offer care for our homeless residents in honor of Him.”
It is evident from the atmosphere in the Center that the women and children who reside there are not just given a place to live for a while, but are given a home. Mission staff help residents through a three-step process which enables them to live on their own again. To get back on their feet, residents must make a change, live the change and secure the change for themselves. They are not asked to do this on their own, but with the help of God and staff members, residents are able to obtain and hold jobs, save money and develop basic life skills.
Next, I was off to work in the Lighthouse Diner, the Mission’s soup kitchen. By the time I arrived, the food had already been prepared. We listened to a message given by an exuberant local pastor before serving a hearty lunch to those who ventured out into the extreme cold that day. South Side Mission’s culinary arts class usually makes an extravagant three-course meal for the soup kitchen, but they were offsite at a sanitation class that day. In their place, volunteers James and John cooked a lunch of corn dogs, onion rings and butter beans, which Meg and I then served.
After lunch, Meg and I drove to the Mission Mart on Knoxville—one of two South Side Mission thrift stores—and were quickly put to work by the Mission’s director of retail, Matt Sommer. We were taken to the back room, where donations were piled high, and Matt handed us over to Melody Church, who showed us how to inspect clothing and accessories and label, sort and hang them for sale.
I was impressed with both the quality and quantity of merchandise that had been given to the Mart for resale. I also learned that many of the clothes I had seen at the Benevolence Center earlier that morning were donations which did not pass the inspection to be sold in the stores. In such cases, the Mart puts the clothing in boxes to be transferred to the BC, where they will be given away to its patrons.
Working at the Mission Mart provided me a great opportunity to speak with Mission staff members and volunteers alike, and I came to understand a bit more of what goes on behind the scenes. I learned that South Side Mission only has about 40 paid staff members; the rest are volunteers. Throughout the day, I had heard several people sing the praise of the Mission’s volunteers—it was something I couldn’t get away from. While I was able to meet some of them and saw the work they were doing, it didn’t seem all that remarkable until Meg told me that, mission-wide, volunteers put in about 2,000 hours of work each month. That’s a little over 83 days’ time—more than twice as many days as are actually in a month. Melody’s statement that “volunteers are the lifeblood of the Mission” definitely rings true. Without them, the Mission could not be the light it is to Peoria’s south side.
Food Basket Delivery
Later, we met up with Robin Winfrey, who heads up the Mission’s ministry to the elderly, and her husband, Frank who is a pastor at South Side Mission, and went to deliver a food basket to a family unable to leave their house. The 15 minutes we spent with them was the most humbling part of my day at South Side Mission. “Jane” was recovering from an invasive surgery and struggling with other health conditions on top of that. While she and her family and friends were very appreciative for the food, they were even more thankful for the opportunity to pray with a pastor and staff from the Mission. Standing in a circle holding hands and lifting that family up in prayer was, I think, the epitome of the work of South Side Mission. Pastor Frank, Robin and Meg truly were a light to those who needed to see and feel the love of God. Caring words, listening ears, comforting hugs and spoken blessings helped ease that family’s load, even if only for a short while.
Break Out Youth Center
Next we headed back to Laramie Street to the Mission’s youth department, where some of the Mission’s most important work is done each day. I was able to speak with some students as they learned about nutrition, and Sheree Mitchell, director of the Break Out Youth Center, gave me a tour of the facility. During the week, the Mission provides transportation from school to the Center for tutoring, focusing on helping individual students with their particular needs. Sheree explained that they used to primarily help kids with their homework, but since they found that many of them had trouble performing basic skills such as reading and simple math functions, the program’s focus switched to help with those types of problems instead. The Mission even provides transportation home for students whose families require it.
Not only does the Break Out Center offer after-school tutoring, but clubs for boys and girls as well. Leadership, life skills and character formation are taught in each club through Christian mentoring and fellowship. Sheree, her assistant, Larry Thomas, and volunteers do not put up with misbehavior, violence, foul language, gang signs or drug paraphernalia. They noted that the Youth Center has become a place of privilege for most of the students they serve, where they don’t have to worry about the tough life and family situations they deal with every day. It’s a safe place where they can be themselves and act their age. Twelve-year-olds don’t have to worry about taking care of their younger brothers or sisters, for example; they can be kids themselves at the Center.
Larry noted that, while other area programs offer after-school tutoring and even pick students up from their schools each afternoon, what sets South Side’s youth program apart is its Christian mission. Not only do they provide kids with the academic help they need, they also seek to provide a spiritual and moral foundation. It is clear from Sheree and Larry that theirs is a ministry, not just a program.
Possibly the best part of the youth program is their club for high school students looking to go to college. College Club meets twice a month and helps students explore their options for college and complete financial aid applications. Students attend college fairs both in and out of the area, and start their own college funds with money they make from fundraisers.
Reflection on the Day
At the end of the day, South Side Mission Executive Director Phil Newton asked me, “What was the most unexpected thing you encountered here today?” When I began writing this article, I still wasn’t sure what that was. Now, after getting it all down, I think the Break Out Youth Center was the program I least expected. I knew the Mission had a youth program, but I had no idea how much of a home and haven it had become for the youth it serves, in addition to their families. Sheree and Larry are bringing hope and light to young people on Peoria’s south side, whose lives are undoubtedly changed for the better.
Overall, my day at South Side Mission was extremely rewarding. While volunteering, I went from program to program with very few breaks. By the time I left at 6pm, I was completely exhausted—I don’t think my head stopped spinning until the following day! But I would do it all over again if the opportunity presented itself. The Mission’s staff and volunteers constantly wear smiles as they serve the poor on Peoria’s south side, sharing the love of Christ with all who come to them. TPW