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A new face of need emerges in Williamson County
 



Volunteers fill boxes of food at GraceWorks where about 5,400 families were served last year. The amount of goods given to families from the food pantry increased about 275 percent in the past five years.   Submitted
A few years ago Susan and Casey Dunn never expected to be customers of Graceworks. They even served as volunteers for the organization in the past. However, when Casey was laid off from his home building job in 2011, tough financial times hit, and GraceWorks provided a safety net for food, clothes and help with utilities – “all of the above” – Susan said. 

“The experience taught me strength and endurance, and I am now glad that I have those skills.”

Having to downsize all expenses including eating out, cable and Internet, the couple also owns one car, which provides convenient transportation to their professional part-time home cleaning job.

While not cleaning as a couple, they are working on growing their hobby – building birdhouses – into a business.

Just like the Dunns, the “face of need” grows in Williamson County as GraceWorks, one of the county’s largest serving nonprofits, struggles to keep up with the voluminous requests of the community.

 “Our fastest growing group of clients are the underemployed,” said Tina Edwards, executive director of GraceWorks, who has worked for the organization for nine years.

“People who don’t have a full time job. That is the new face of need in Williamson County. The face of need has changed. The face of need is not what we expect.”

Contrary to upholding the status of the wealthiest county in the state, Williamson County’s population of families in need of food, clothes, and emergency financial assistance is increasing – and not just a little but at a staggering rate.

From the outside, families in the county seem to have emerged from the financial crisis of 2008 relatively unscathed. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the unemployment rate – 5.8 percent – in the county as of July is the lowest in the state and significantly lower than the national average of 7.4. Also, county reports boast rising home prices and an increase in building permits.

However, a closer look inside the county’s seemingly thriving borders reveal an alternate story of families struggling to find their financial footing on what used to be stable ground.

 “The county looks great, but much of the workforce has gone from unemployed to underemployed, and they can’t afford to feed their family,” Edwards said.

By July, GraceWorks had served as many families as the organization did in all of 2012 – not counting the busiest upcoming months of October, November and December. In 2012 the GraceWorks food pantry provided 275 percent more food than it did five years ago. Their Fuel Bag, weekend nutrition program, which provides weekend food to students on free and reduced lunch at 15 city and county schools, increased 700 percent since 2010 – serving about 555 students a week last year with a projected increase of 700 students in the fall. With the increase, Edwards said they are currently only able to serve about 10 percent of the students who qualify for the program because of a lack of sufficient funding, volunteers and logistics.

GraceWorks provides the largest food pantry in Williamson County, which distributed about $1 million in food last year. The organization also helps family navigate such emergencies as providing utility and rent payment assistance for families to sustain their day-to-day immediate needs. About 5,400 families in the county received assistance from GraceWorks last year.
“We are seeing a huge number of underemployed people – people who were full time and are now part-time because employers cannot afford the new government enforced healthcare,” Edwards said. 

“Some families are now living on one salary instead of two. The executive, who is no longer an executive, has been laid off and is looking for a job while the family lives on one spouse’s – a teacher’s income.”

Edwards added that some are working, but wages don’t equal their earned degree or skill set, and money still remains too tight to support their family.

“It’s not enough to keep a roof over their head or food on the table,” Edwards said.

“Tack on, less benefits and families are in trouble. Some are working 24 hours a day with no childcare in the evenings. It sets up a whole new set of problems.”

Nine months ago, a homeless coalition was organized by the United Way of Williamson County, which consists of partnerships between local nonprofit organizations to address the issue of homelessness in the county.

“We are focusing on giving the fish, but also teaching to fish at the same time. There are families who are hungry today, whose utilities have been turned off,” Edwards said.

The sharp surge in community need combined with the organization’s outgrown facilities has placed GraceWorks in jeopardy of being unable to adequately deliver supplies and services to the community.

They recently launched their ‘Growing in Grace’ capital campaign as a tool to help the organization fund the purchase of new land to construct a new 40,000 square foot building – more than twice the size of their current facility – that would accommodate more people and more goods.

However, the organization fell dramatically short of reaching its goal of raising $1 million by Labor Day for the purchase of 4.5 acres of land at 143 Southeast Parkway Court on same street of its current location. This site was planned to serve as the foundation of the new building. If funds are not raised, Edwards is blocked from moving forward with expanding Graceworks.
Edwards said that the organization’s aging facilities and a lack of sufficient space and resources are crippling its ability to meet the needs of the community as well as store goods that the community desperately needs.

The current building located on Southeast Parkway in Franklin lacks the appropriate electrical capacity to store an adequate amount of refrigerated goods. The heating and cooling system is deficient.

The organization has outgrown its space, limiting its ability to meet with families, a number that has doubled in recent years. And the facility limits the amount of volunteers who can serve at a given time.

Edwards worries about how the organization will meet future community needs if they don’t have a proper facility, people and goods.

Talk of Williamson County’s projected population growth overwhelms Edwards, which is projected to double to about 334,000 by 2040 according to county Mayor Rogers Anderson’s recent county address.

“Williamson County is the fastest growing county in the state. More people are coming, which brings the good and the bad – more traffic, new schools and more people. Some of those people will have needs.
 “I know what things would look like without GraceWorks.”
The community needs the organization Edwards said, and she plans to keep working until the community’s needs are met and she’s out of a job.

“I hope that one day, I will not have a job. That’s is my goal. I know that’s optimistic, but I want to work myself out of a job.”
However, immunity from financial crisis doesn’t exist, Edwards said, even in Williamson County.

“Many people go through life changes that they are unprepared for,” Edwards said. “They are hard working, valuable people in our community who for a period of time their life has spiraled out of control.”

Edwards remains hopeful about the capital campaign.

“I believe that Williamson County is a community that takes care of its neighbors and is proud to take care of its neighbors. I believe that once the community is aware, we will pull through.”

To donate or find out more about the GraceWorks capital campaign, please visit http://graceworksministries.net.

 

Posted on: 9/5/2013

 
 

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