Employed for 16 years with a state social service agency, Rhodesia Jackson could have been given a pass on devoting her free time to helping others.
So, too, could Joyce Opher and Lynnette Wongus of Eastern Shore Wellness Solutions, who operate mobile food banks throughout the county and across the Shore as just part of their daily health and wellness outreach efforts.
Yet the three women, along with approximately 70 local residents, have felt inspired to give back in extra measure, signing on to serve as volunteers at downtown's One Mission Cambridge, which opened its doors at 614 Race Street last summer.
On Saturday, Jan. 21, Director Krista Pettit and One Mission's board welcomed those who several referred to as "the heart of our mission," with a volunteer appreciation luncheon.
In opening remarks, Pettit expressed sincere gratitude for their meaningful way of giving service.
"Thank you for everything you do, which is both easy and hard. You show up, and love people," Pettit noted.
For several years, area churches and ministries met together to brainstorm how to best help those in need here. In the past, other discussions had taken place off and on. But for the first time, they bore fruit, resulting in a unique coalition of churches and ministries setting up a local mission to help the vulnerable right here at home.
A storefront building was acquired and refurbished to house the services most in need. These included one centralized, accessible food pantry modeled after a walk-in store, instead of several food banks and soup kitchens scattered in different locations.
Also, one-on-one assistance with locating and accessing available community services is offered. Clients can also receive Christian-based mental health counseling, individually and in support groups.
Trained volunteers and staff strive to spend time listening to those who come in requesting help, to best learn what they need and build trust.
The building's large back room, which hosted the luncheon, is also the site where growing numbers of people have been attending free community dinners open to all each first Monday of the month since Oct. 3 (49 people attended January's dinner).
Round tables seating small groups, perfect for fostering conversation, were festively topped with elegant centerpiece arrangements accented with fresh oranges and lemons, crafted by volunteer Mary Angela Martin, who works similar magic for the dinners. (Bags of the fruit were given to those attending to take home, along with boxed-up portions leftover from the meal.)
The idea behind the dinners is to offer not only food, but fellowship and community, especially important to many who are isolated and alone, Pettit noted. "A big part of our mission involves relationship building," she said.
After board members took turns serving up plates of fried chicken, salad, macaroni and cheese, and more to volunteers, Pastor Chris Pettit of Grace United Methodist Church at 501 Race Street offered up a prayer of thanks to God for letting His love flow through their work.
Volunteer Britton Haynes, a newcomer to Cambridge two years ago originally from Nashville, echoed that sentiment when explaining his reason for signing on. He and wife Melissa both believe strongly in using their "time, treasure and talents in helping others in need," adding that doing so offers a way to help pay forward the blessings they've received.
Sue Foxwell of Grace United Methodist, a self-described "worker bee" enjoys working behind the scenes, stocking shelves and helping get the dinners set up. Cheryl Willey, another Grace congregant, was inspired to become a part of One Mission while it was getting up and running. "Krista would be at church on Sunday morning, and tell us 'I have to go in to the Mission building and paint.,' I wanted to find out what it was all about," Willey recalled, noting that the experience has been most rewarding.
David Elzey, who attends Cambridge Wesleyan Church, was a retiree who had taken care of his wife suffering from Alzheimer's disease until she passed away last year. One Mission Secretary Ann Crocker, also a Wesleyan member, noting that he seemed adrift, got Elzey in touch with Pettit, who convinced him to start volunteering. By coming out to help others, regaining a sense of purpose also helped him navigate his own life's crossroads.
In the group's latest newsletter, Crocker shared her reasons for being involved:
"Over the past 15 years, I have found that my passion is for serving those in the community who have so much less than I do. One Mission Cambridge enables me to meet people where they are, build relationships, and share the love of Christ in a very real and meaningful way. It is not about religion or denominations, it is about Christians uniting and doing what we are called to do, and I love this."
Eastern Shore Wellness Solutions Co-Director Joyce Opher was also there on behalf of Pastor Sharon Jones of The Royal Family Outreach Center, which helps support One Mission.
Her ESWS colleague Lynette Wongus, who had lost her daughter to Stage IV cancer in November, was "all in" with Mission One's goals from the start, grateful that "somebody came up with the idea and got it done. Everybody here is united in faith," she said.
For more information, to volunteer or donate, visit onemissioncambridge.org or call 410-901-3959.