A troubling phone call woke Billy Crossley in the middle of the night 30 or so years ago. The passage of time has not blurred his memory of it. A young girl hitchhiking from several states away had made it as far as a truck stop just east of Columbus. Homesick and broke, she had hit bottom and reached out by calling Contact Helpline. The helpline was, in turn, reaching out to Crossley, one of a small band of samaritans who had formed Our Brother’s Keeper.
“I went out there. She was crying and regretting what she’d done,” Crossley recalled. “I told her we would buy her a bus ticket back home, if she would go.” The young lady agreed. He purchased the ticket and saw her onto the bus. “That’s the last I saw of her. Where she ended up I don’t have a clue … but I’ve wondered many times over the years.”
A shared concern for others in similar dire circumstances are what compelled Crossley, Jim Califf, Ida Frances Davis and Liba Dobert to form Our Brother’s Keeper in 1979. As Contact volunteers, several in the group knew how urgent the need for practical assistance can be. Calls frequently came in from people who felt they were at the end of the road. Although organizations existed that could help, criteria and procedures at the time were often barriers to immediate relief when it came to food, shelter, heat or electricity.
“This was frustrating, knowing people were hurting and desperately in need of some type of help,” Crossley said. The foursome began with funds from their own pockets. They developed guidelines and acted on referrals from the helpline, the police department and other sources. From week to week, the pressing needs might have been for an emergency bus ticket, a bag of groceries, a tank of gas or a utility bill in the worst of winter. The advocates talked to whoever would listen, taking the story to churches and elsewhere. January 1989 marked a milestone: the expanding Our Brother’s Keeper became Helping Hands Inc. and hired Nancy Guerry as its executive director.
“And there’s only one Nancy Guerry,” Crossley praised.
This February, Guerry began her 26th year of shepherding Helping Hands, and Crossley is still actively involved — because the need is still great.
More than a food pantry
While Helping Hands is often identified with its food pantry, the United Way agency’s mission is broader than that.
“We can also step in and help families with basic, necessary living expenses such as rent, mortgage or utility bills,” explained Guerry. “We do medical, dental, prescription medications … providing assistance to help keep the emergency from becoming a crisis that could cause them to have to get out of their homes.”
Comprehensive qualifying guidelines are in place. Individuals provide records to show that, under normal circumstances, they are able to pay their bills.
“But perhaps someone has been laid off, a car has broken down, or there have been surgeries and medical issues,” the director said.
Since Jan. 1 of this year alone, the agency has financially assisted 93 families and given food to more than 600 individuals, Guerry shared.
His wife’s disability brought Donald Cattledge to Helping Hands this past week. He is unable to hold a full-time job because of the hands-on care she requires. He remembers the day his head hung low and he was wondering what to do, when he saw a notice in the newspaper about Helping Hands. He made the call.
“This place is helping me a whole lot — and when I say a whole lot, I mean a whole lot,” he said.
“I can see”
Judy Augustinowicz never thought she’d tell any part of her story. But she wants others to know there are people willing to help.
“I had about give up,” the 59-year-old said Tuesday, thinking back to the early 1980s. “I had two kids, and I was on food stamps, but it just wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to have to ask for help, but I didn’t know what to do.” The Salvation Army suggested she try Helping Hands. “Miss Nancy was the first person I saw. She made me feel welcome; she said, ‘What do you need?'”
The years since have not been easy ones. Augustinowicz has survived domestic violence and homelessness. Agencies including Helping Hands, Safehaven, Contact and Salvation Army have provided lifelines. Today, she is grateful to be in an apartment and holding a part-time job.
“I finally made it,” she can say now. “I’m still climbing that ladder, but I cry every day because I’m just so thankful God made a way for these organizations to do things for people who don’t have anywhere else to turn. Everything has changed so much; I have food in my stomach, and I can see!” Augustinowicz has new glasses, thanks to Helping Hands. “I’d been wearing some old ones that were broken and wired together. They sent me to the doctor’s office and I got glasses!”
In addition to United Way support, Helping Hands operates on contributions, most from churches, organizations and individuals. Donations of non-perishable food items for the pantry are welcome.
“There have been times when we were doing well to get three cans of green beans, three cans of corn and a can of tuna for someone,” said Guerry. “But there’s never been a time we couldn’t give anything.” Right now, shelves are well-stocked and the agency is able to fill three to four sacks for those in need. “I’d much rather fill the sacks; it’s more fun,” the director smiled.
Hunters at First Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Columbus have recently donated processed, frozen deer meat, a welcome addition to the pantry’s stock of food.
Another development is the addition of Helping Hands to smile.amazon.com You shop; Amazon gives, donating .5 percent of the price of eligible AmazonSmile purchases to the charitable organization of your choice.
With Helping Hands’ second quarter-century underway, Crossley, Guerry and the board of directors are committed to continuing the work.
When asked if he is proud of all that has been accomplished since the first foursome began Our Brother’s Keeper, Crossley paused, then said, “I’m thankful.”
The original group is no more. “But our mission remains the same. … And we know that without God’s help and the help of the community, a task this great could not be accomplished,” Crossley stressed.
People like Donald Cattledge, Judy Augustinowicz and Diane Mason put faces on the mission.
“If you go there needing food, or a blanket, or a fan, they’re going to try to help you,” said Mason, who was able to get a fan at the agency during the last summer heat wave. “All I can say about Helping Hands is, God bless them.”
Editor’s note: For more information about Helping Hands Inc., contact Nancy Guerry at 662-328-8301. Donations to the agency are tax-deductible.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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