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What you need to know for 01/21/2018

Foss: Schenectady church giving people everyday essentials

Foss: Schenectady church giving people everyday essentials

'Poverty is so heavy. All we're doing is making it a little bit easier'
Foss: Schenectady church giving people everyday essentials
Volunteer Barb Armstrong loads up an armful of diapers and toiletries at First United Methodist Church in downtown Schenectady.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

The set-up resembles a food pantry, but no food is distributed.

Instead, volunteers hand out basic necessities such as toilet paper, soap, feminine hygiene products, shampoo and diapers. 

Such items might seem like a fairly small part of the family budget. 

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But if you're poor, the cost of toiletries and other basic necessities adds up quickly. 

Which is why First United Methodist Church in downtown Schenectady has built an entire ministry out of giving people the things they need to stay clean, healthy and comfortable — and why people are willing to wait an hour or two to get these things. 

"I save some money," 65-year-old Schenectady resident Harry Persad told me. "It makes a difference. It takes some time and sacrifice to come here, but it's worth it." 

When I visited First United Methodist Church on Wednesday, Persad was one of a long line of people seated patiently in the church's upstairs hallway, waiting for his number to be called.  

Just seeing this long line, full of parents of young children, middle-aged adults and retirees, gave me a better sense of how desperate many Schenectady County residents are, and how a seemingly simple act of charity can make a big difference. 

"We're lightening the load and offering a bit of hope," the Rev. Sara Baron, the pastor at First United Methodist, told me. "Poverty is so heavy. All we're doing is making it a little bit easier." 

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I've visited a number of food pantries over the years, but never a program that solely provides toiletries and other everyday essentials. 

Based on what I saw, the demand for these items is great, and the struggle to obtain them is one many people bear in silence. If you're like me, and have never had to worry about where the next bar of soap or roll of toilet paper is coming from, it might come as a shock to realize that such worries are actually quite common. 

None of the items given out by First United Methodist Church are covered by public assistance programs such as WIC or food stamps, which can make obtaining them a challenge for people living on the margins. 

"Toilet paper is not expensive, but if you're dealing with $60 a week, $1 can make it or break it," Baron said. 

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Schenectady resident Michelle Moore learned of the program at First United Methodist Church, officially known as the Sustain Ministry, about a year ago, and she's been coming ever since.

When I ask her what she gets from the program, Moore replies, "Everything — anything they can help me out with." 

The free diapers and feminine hygiene products are especially helpful, Moore tells me, noting that she has a 15-year-old daughter and a 21-month-old daughter. At times, "I've had periods where I've had to go without [feminine hygiene products]," she said. Thanks to First United Methodist, those days are over. 

A 2013 study from Feeding America, a nationwide hunger-relief organization, took a closer look at the difficulty many families have affording common personal-care items. 

The study found that one-third of low-income families report struggling to obtain these items and using a variety of coping mechanisms, such as going without toothpaste and delaying changing a diaper, when they cannot. Diapers are one of the most expensive parts of raising a baby, costing between $70 and $80 a month. 

"A lot of the people we see are working but on tight budgets and they can't quite make it with diapers," explained Beth Long-Velasquez, who coordinates Sustain Ministry. 

Sustain Ministry got its start about 20 years ago, when members of the church noted that people were breaking the toilet paper dispensers and stealing toilet paper. 

The church had never locked its doors before, and members decided that they would rather give out toilet paper to the needy than bar them from using the bathroom. 

Over the years, Sustain Ministry has steadily grown and now offers more items than ever before. When I stopped by Wednesday, shampoo was handed out, as well as free children's books. 

The volunteer-run program operates on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month; participants are limited to one visit each month, between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Long-Velasquez estimates that the average household size is 3.8 people. 

For Persad, the bag of supplies he takes home will be used by his wife and three children, one of whom is still in diapers. 

"It's very helpful," Persad says. 

Judging from his willingness to wait, I'm sure it is. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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