Story and photos by Jennifer Lee
Two Clarke County charitable organizations dedicated to serving the needy have recently found a new home themselves, giving them a Main Street Berryville presence and better opportunities to achieve their missions. Help with Housing and FISH moved into their new digs at 36 East Main Street in the former Clarke County Library building just last month, and celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception on December 5.
The county owns the building, but charges virtually no rent in exchange for the two organizations maintaining the building. FISH occupies the first floor with its clothing store and food pantry while Help with Housing’s offices are on the second floor of the recently renovated former residence. A spacious, bright room with a large conference table and fireplace on the first floor greets visitors and serves as a meeting room for both groups.
Help with Housing
Help with Housing (HWH) was founded in 1988 to assist low-income county residents with emergency home repairs like heating, plumbing, and accessibility issues. Since that time, the organization has grown to serve residents in the five neighboring municipalities of Frederick, Warren, Page, Shenandoah, and the city of Winchester and the number of projects completed has skyrocketed from five in 1990 to 97 in 2012. In the last 25 years, the organization has completed approximately 850 projects, assisted nearly 2,000 people, and spent $1.2 million dollars in services and materials.
Paula Costello, the organization’s executive director since 1994, says that the biggest challenge for her is, “the frustration of not being able to help all the people that really need it.” She said she receives five to ten calls a day requesting assistance on everything from water heaters to roof repairs, and there are presently over 100 households on the waiting list.
Requests are evaluated based on the nature of help needed, in addition to the income of the people requesting help. “Most of our recipients have a household income between $8,000 to $12,000 a year, and it’s very rare we get calls from people who are over-qualified.” In order to qualify, recipients must fall below 80 percent of the median income in a particular area, which varies from county to county.
Many requests are of a critical nature—the repair or installation of indoor plumbing and heating, installation of accessibility ramps and railings to assist the disabled, and roof repairs when conditions threaten the safety of residents. The cost of repairs can range from $100 to $5,000. “Depending on the issue, we try to respond to requests within a week—when it’s critical,” Costello said.
Over the years, Help with Housing has partnered with many regional agencies and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to expand their reach and effectiveness. Through HUD home grants, HWH is able to access up to $30,000 to assist with major rehabilitation projects where more than one problem exists.
Their partnership with United Way of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, beginning in 1994, has been instrumental in finding, funding, and completing projects in a nearly 50-mile radius. “We’ve partnered with many local agencies and groups—Access Independence, Esther Boyd, churches, and we are a big part of United Way,” Costello said.
Help with Housing was inspired by the concern of Clarke County residents Jane Cary Harrison and Charlotte Kern, who saw that some people were living in deplorable conditions among the grand estates and cozy neighborhoods in the county. Houses with no indoor plumbing, caving-in roofs, dangerous wiring, and no or little heat sources became the targets of a small group of citizens who formed the group and received seed money from the Virginia Housing Partnership Fund.
Costello says that about 65 percent of their beneficiaries are elderly people, many of whom are disabled and on fixed incomes limited to social security checks. “Often, the children or grandchildren of these folks will call to request assistance for their family members,” she said. Referrals also come from Social Services, health departments, building departments, physical rehabilitation facilities, and schools.
After a call comes in, Costello files a report, and project manager Chris Graham is dispatched to review the problem. Bids are then solicited from area contractors, many of whom provide discounted services and materials. Appliances and other items are often purchased at the ReStore, a nonprofit home-improvement store and donation center in Winchester operated by Habitat for Humanity.
Due to demand from neighboring counties, HWH expanded its reach in 1999, first to Warren County, then subsequently to Frederick, Shenandoah, Page, and the City of Winchester. “By far, the greatest need is in Frederick County, double or triple than in our other communities,” Costello said. There are a number of communities there where living conditions are often plagued with issues like mold, water leaks, deteriorating flooring, and substandard plumbing. Whereas other county governments contribute funding, Frederick does not. In Shenandoah County, the Shenandoah Community Foundation is a solid supporter of Help with Housing’s efforts.
Bringing new expertise and enthusiasm to fundraising efforts is Ardis Cullers, HWH’s new director of marketing and fundraising. She worked as a volunteer fundraiser in Washington, D.C. for several years, raising money for suburban hospitals and Key to the Cure for national breast cancer research. Since July, she has attended many workshops and meetings, spoken to civic groups, organized special events, and became a United Way Account Executive to increase the awareness and support of the organization. “I love speaking to groups about what we do and welcome the opportunity to do so,” Cullers says.
HWH established a capital campaign to help pay for office renovations, with Jim Stutzman Chevrolet-Cadillac contributing the funds to install a large new patio in the back of the building, a space that was previously unsightly and unusable and can now be used to host small outdoor receptions and events.
The results of HWH’s efforts are always gratifying, but the stories are often heart wrenching. “One Christmas, I got a call from a woman whose husband had left her and their children. He came back to get the birds in the house but not his wife and kids. I had to go home early that day,” Costello recalls, her voice cracking.
But with the assistance of Help with Housing and a caring community, the struggles of hundreds of people are eased each year. HWH welcomes any contributions community members can make, through cash donations, their Adopt A Project program, or by volunteering.
Filling the bellies of people in need is only part of the mission of FISH, a completely volunteer-run organization that has its first public space since its inception in 1969. Previously, its donation center was in a small building next to Old Chapel off Route 340, open only three hours a week. Now the organization has a kitchen and dedicated spaces for a food pantry and used clothing store and is open every Wednesday and Saturday from 9am till noon.
“This space offers a lot more contact with our clients and the ability to talk to people in person,” said Mary Veilleux, president of FISH’s board of directors. The food pantry is well-stocked with perishable and non-perishable items ranging from soup to nuts to diapers and the clothing store offers a varied selection of clothing and other items for men, women, and children, all for very low prices.
Jane Cary Harrison was the engine behind the founding of FISH nearly 20 years before helping to organize Help with Housing. She had heard about an organization named FISH dedicated to serving the needy in another community, and brought that name and mission, and its Christian symbolism, to Clarke County. A plaque recognizing Mrs. Harrison is now on the front of the building.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of FISH’s outreach is providing one-time emergency assistance to people who need help with basic living expenses, most often utility bills. There are six FISH volunteers who provide financial counseling and evaluate requests. Of those who qualify for help and are first time callers, FISH has been able to fulfill 100 percent of the requests, Veilleux said, but she sees the role of the organization beyond serving as an emergency resource. “We want to encourage people to take responsibility, be accountable, and look for ways to create a sustainable life.”
Connecting people is another byproduct of the mission. Vielleux tells the story of a man who had been laid off from his job and sought assistance with his rent payment. Through the network of FISH volunteers, he found a job six months later. “We can’t help people who need continual assistance, so it’s important we show them ways to help themselves,” she said.
Another service FISH provides is taking people to and from medical appointments and treatment centers. They have driven 157 people to appointments this year.
The food pantry, run by volunteer Grace Lewis, must follow USDA guidelines for public food distribution. People may come once a month and take a designated and varied selection of food items. They can come to the clothing shop, organized by volunteers Sue Ross and Sharon Harrison, as often as they like.
Local churches are the primary benefactors to FISH, contributing hundreds of pounds of food each year through food drives. “Mountain Baptist Church in Frogtown is our biggest donor. They are so generous, it just keeps you smiling about small community,” Veilleux said. Duncan Memorial Methodist Church hosts a food distribution event on the third Friday of every month in which a different church adopts the task of food collection. Civic groups like the Rotary Club and Boy Scouts and county schools are also regular contributors.
Clarke County Social Services is an integral partner to FISH, providing referrals and administrative support. In turn, FISH provides a more personal and often more accessible source of assistance than a governmental agency can. “We want to be there for anyone who might fall through the cracks,” said Veilleux. Unfortunately, the need appears to be growing, with 203 people visiting the food pantry in November compared to 300 people the entire year of 2006. Fortunately for all of them, the volunteers and benefactors of FISH of Clarke County are there to help.
Help with Housing is located at 36 East Main Street (2nd floor) in Berryville and can be contacted at 540-955-1706, email@example.com, and on the web at www.helpwithhousing.org.
FISH is located at 36 East Main Street (1st floor) in Berryville and can be contacted at 540-955-1823 or on the web at www.fishministry.org.