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GraceWorks: In this economy, the needy come from all neighborhoods

In the private offices of GraceWorks Ministries, thousands of files line the walls. Maybe tens of thousands, each filled with a story of devastating economic crisis and a future void of clear direction. Sometimes it's a family capsized by one medical bill too many. For others it's spectacular financial meltdown brought about by a brutally unforgiving economy. Stories of foreclosures are common; so are those brought about by alcohol and drug abuse. Churches and other organizations often refer women with a fresh round of bruises desperate for safety, often with bewildered children in tow. Middle-aged men with college degrees whose unemployment languished long enough to drain a retirement fund. Homeowners who didn't carry the right flood insurance. A baby left on a grandmother's stoop with a tearstained note of apology. The unforgiving bottom of the economic cliff is littered with families from all economic strata. The staff of GraceWorks provides its clients the means to start rebuilding their lives, as well as hope that the storm that brings new questions with each passing hour will someday pass.

Those who seek help at GraceWorks are not necessarily from impoverished areas as one might reasonably suspect. They hail “from all neighborhoods, from all zip codes, from all over the county,” said Carol Dublin, operations director. “You would be surprised.” Nor are they are not limited to any particular race or gender, or other demographic identifier. GraceWorks' clients come from all walks of life and all economic strata within Williamson County. And the need is great here. According to GraceWorks, the number of applicants for food stamps here in the state's wealthiest county has swelled by 50 percent over the past seven years.

“Sometimes we can help people financially, or with food and clothing. And sometimes what we can offer is hope through prayer,” said Kristi Sylvester, development director. “Regardless, we ask everyone at the end of their time here if we can say a prayer, it's not pushy. And I don't know that anybody has ever said 'no.' ” 

Some of GraceWorks' activities are high profile, Dublin said, such as 2010 when it served as the Red Cross relief center during the so-called 1,000-Year Flood that snatched 31 lives, and washed away hundreds of homes and businesses in the region. And this holiday season, the organization will notably ensure hundreds of families in need will have meals this Thanksgiving and Christmas. It also makes sure parents can provide their children – and each other, if need be – gifts to unwrap Christmas morning.

Some of GraceWorks' other initiatives are intentionally invisible. Through one such program, GraceWorks provides 400 students in 10 public schools each week with nutritious food to eat over the weekend.

“We send packs of food home with some children on the weekend who otherwise might not have nutritious food to eat,” Sylvester said. “Teachers or counselors discreetly put food in their backpacks on Friday so other kids won't see it. We currently do this in 10 public schools, and have two more on the waiting list.”

Four hundred students may sound like a lot. But it's a tiny fraction of the 5,900 children in Williamson County Schools considered economically disadvantaged and would almost assuredly benefit from the program.

“That's the potential,” Sylvester said. “The need is great.”

Community Support

As much as GraceWorks supports the community, the community also supports GraceWorks. Individuals donate clothes, furniture, food, and money. And corporate support is “tremendous,” Sylvester said. Grocery stores, including Kroger and Publix, each hold food drives annually, most notably during the holidays. Not to mention school-supply drives at the advent of each new academic year.

“They also donate to us at the corporate level, too. Wal-Mart has really stepped up this year to help us as well,” Sylvester said. “Then there are the civic groups; the Lions Club, the veteran groups, the American Legion, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. I don't want to leave anybody out.”

Scores of churches within the county, which is where GraceWorks traces its roots, also provide material goods and financial support.

The group's biggest fundraiser occurs each Thanksgiving Day: The 2012 Turkey Trot 5K race and 1K fun run, which begins at the D1 campus immediately south of CoolSprings Galleria.

“It's not too late to sign up,” Dublin said. “We'll be there at 6:30 Thursday morning signing up runners who didn't pre-register. We have plenty of room for everybody.”

According to Sylvester, last year the event was the biggest Turkey Trot in its history, and as of the Thursday before Thanksgiving this year, they have already registered more runners than in 2011.

“This will be our biggest Turkey Trot by far,” she said.

Combined, these groups and fundraisers subsidize nearly half of GraceWorks' $2 million operating budget, which is up 11 percent since just last year. Its retail establishments – “Our stores fund our programs,” Sylvester said. “We definitely want everyone to shop here!” – provide the rest.

The Stores

The generous outpouring of support from individuals, groups, and corporations alike – not to mention the 200 volunteers who donate their time each week – provide about half of GraceWorks’ operating budget. The other half comes from sales in its three stores, all housed at its headquarters at 104 Southeast Parkway in Franklin. And the floor space dedicated to each has increased dramatically in recent weeks. There's the Home Furnishing & Décor Store (think impressive leather wingback chairs, designer furniture, DVDs, electronics, and fashionable knick-knacks), the Women's Clothing and Boutique Store (“Don't forget to say 'boutique!' ” Sylvester helpfully instructs), and there's the men's clothing store that doesn't seem to carry a branding moniker like its counterparts.

The offerings at GraceWorks might surprise its first-time shoppers. There are no dusty electronics that may or may not function; the volunteers test them all before putting them on the showroom floor. The clothing is fashionable and notably absent of faults – no musty items that have somehow escaped the passage of time. And the accessories are plentiful, some contemporary and others vintage. The women's store in particular is impressively stocked in terms of quality and quantity, and Sylvester is right to emphasize the “boutique” area, where designer clothes, shoes, and accessories reign supreme. This is not your typical thrift store. Rather, it exudes the feel of a higher-end retail shop in every aspect except the price. The staff is helpful, the lighting is good, and tasteful area rugs and textile window treatments provide effective finishing touches.

“The people in Williamson County are very generous with their donations,” Sylvester said. “The items they donate are generally top notch.”

When asked whether it's taboo for people not experiencing economic turmoil to purchase the offerings, Sylvester's eyes widened as if it should be understood that this is decidedly not the case.

“Our store is for everybody. The money raised directly supports our programs. So, our customers are helping those in need by shopping here,” she said.

GraceWorks Ministries is closed Thanksgiving week.

“Dec. 1–21, would be a particularly great time to shop,” Sylvester said. “We'll be running lots of specials.”

Posted on: 11/19/2012


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