Inspirational programs help provide a fresh start or a helping hand to those in need
December tends to be the time of year when we think of giving to those in need. But many programs in Kentucky provide daily help year-round. Here are just a few inspiring programs and individuals we'd like to recognize for their impressive work.
New Opportunity School for Women
"I have a new way of looking at things,ï¿½ says Connie Willoughby. "I can have more in my future than I ever thought possible."
That's the "new" Connie Willoughby speaking. The "former" Connie Willoughby was overwhelmed and "felt like something was lacking" in her life although she loved being mother to Heather and Tyler. She says she had become "a label": mom, nurse, chauffeur, housekeeper, errand runner, cook, bill payer.
The single mother of two still lovingly fulfills all these roles, but now Willoughby is also an aspiring artist.
The difference came through the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea, www.nosw.org, a program designed to help low-income, middle-aged women in the Appalachian region and Kentucky improve their financial, educational, and personal circumstances.
"The New Opportunity School opened my eyes to a lot of things," says the Lancaster resident. "It gives you three weeks to focus on yourself. Women always have to focus on all those around them. For three weeks, you can make decisions for your future."
Willoughby went through the program in the summer of 2005 and returned this past summer as a house sister, a graduate who stays with the women and meets their diverse needs during the program.
Willoughby's house sister, Jeane Thiele, was a big inspiration to Willoughby, sending her postcards to encourage her painting and even mailing Willoughby an art easel and art supplies. That gave Willoughby the courage to take art classes, begin painting on canvas, and in 2006 to hold her first exhibit, which Thiele and several other classmates from the school attended.
These bold steps--empowered by new knowledge and new friends--are precisely what Executive Director Janet Gill hopes will happen.
"The curriculum is designed to address every aspect of their lives," says Gill. "Our mission is to help them determine goals, employment interests, and become self-reliant."
The three-week residential program is packed with field trips, book discussions, mock job interviews, health screenings, dental work, self-esteem workshops, make-up and clothing consultations, computer and math classes, career counseling, creative writing sessions, job shadowing, self-defense training, and information sessions on domestic abuse and the judicial system. There is so much to accomplish each day that 15 hours often sprint by before the women are back in their rooms at night.
In the past 20 years, 513 women have completed the residential program. In the last year alone, 794 women participated in other New Opportunity programs, which include numerous self-improvement
sessions. A recent survey of graduates showed that 74 percent are now employed, enrolled in further education, or both.
"They learn they are far more capable than they thought they were," Gill says.
Opportunities from the United Methodist Mountain Mission
Greater opportunities are also at the heart of the United Methodist Mountain Mission. The mission operates "Opportunity Stores" in Jackson, Hazard, Barbourville, Irvine, Harlan, Hazard, Pineville, West Liberty, and Burkesville. They also have a Christian bookstore and a processing center in Jackson.
"We have had three goals since day one," says Karen Bunn, executive director. "We want to provide good used clothing and household items at low prices, employment for people in the area, and avenues for spiritual growth."
Today, 72 employees are needed to run the operation. The stores receive goods from the processing center, which screens and sorts all donations. Only quality items with no stains or defects are sent to the stores. Other donations are packaged and sold by the pound overseas. Many of the items are name brands and in excellent condition. A pair of Gap jeans, for example, sells for $2.50, books go for a quarter or 50 cents, and a nice sofa can be purchased for about $35.
The jobs are as sought after as the goods because they provide not only wages but also affordable health insurance, vacation pay, and pension plans.
John Lewis, as a young minister, started the nonprofit mission 60 years ago. He began with a pick-up truck collecting clothes and distributing them to people in need. Today, 245 truckloads of donations are sorted, cleaned, and sold each year.
Perhaps even more impressive than the numbers are the individuals who are touched by the stores.
Bunn says, "When I am in the stores visiting, customers will come up and say, 'Oh, thank you so much for this store. It means so much to me. We raised our family on your store.' Others will tell me that their children had brand-name clothes like their peers because of the stores. Some see the stores as therapy and come every day. They tell me it is 'more than just a store to come and buy things. It is also a place to visit.'"
Adds Bunn, "One of the times that touched me most was when a young girl came into a store looking for a wedding dress. We don't get a whole lot of wedding dresses, but there just happened to be in that store at that time the perfect dress for her in the perfect size. It was like it was made for her, it was so perfect."
Pennyrile Allied Community Services-Hopkins County Assistance Center
In Hopkins County, the Pennyrile Allied Community Services-Hopkins County Assistance Center (PACS-HCAC) also helps people improve their lives.
Sometimes that help comes in the form of personal items such as clothing, dishes, small appliances, mattresses, or furniture.
Sometimes help is for a particular group.
School-age kids, for example, benefit from PACS-HCAC's Back to School program. Each child receives two new outfits, three gently used outfits, five new pairs of socks and underwear, and school supplies. Over Christmas break, the Teen Shopping program can provide teens, ages 13-18, who have not received help elsewhere, a $75 gift card from a clothing store so they can shop for school clothes.
At Thanksgiving, the agency provides baskets containing turkey and all the fixings. At Christmas, there are baskets for those over 65.
During November and December, people can also get help with their heating bills; in October, the agency preregisters the elderly and disabled who are on fixed incomes for this program. In March, the agency has a garden seed program so participants can grow vegetables for food.
In the summer, PACS-HCAC has an education grant that will help college students pay up to $500 for books and/or tuition.
"To my knowledge, there is not another assistance center in the state of Kentucky that offers free items," says Bobbi Ann Wilcox, director of PACS-HCAC.
But the goal is not just to provide for immediate needs but also to transform lives and help people to be as self-sufficient as possible.
"A lady we helped three years ago stopped by recently," Wilcox says. "She has two children and had lived in an abusive situation. We helped her finish school with some tuition money and helped her find a job when she was finished. She is now a certified nursing assistant. She had just gotten her first big raise and was starting to get benefits and insurance with her job. Now she was signing papers to buy her first home."
Frank Riddick, the Bike Man
All his childhood, Frank Riddick wanted a bicycle that never came, so today he tries to make sure all the kids within his reach have a bike.
For 11 years, the retired Hickman County farmer has been repairing used bicycles to give to children who don't have one.
The 73-year-old has only a vague notion of how many bikes he has given away. One year it was about 600. He multiplies that by 11 years and comes up with "well into the thousands."
Riddick says he has little trouble finding bicycles to repair or children who need them.
"I just drive into a community with a load of about 30 bicycles on an open trailer," he says. "I go to the housing projects or lower-income areas. Children come running up and ask about the bikes. I tell them if they don't have a bike, they can have one free. If they have a bike but it is broken, they can trade. If they have a bike that needs to be fixed, I will fix it on the spot if I can."
Word spreads quickly, and soon "the Bike Man," as kids call him, is back on the road with a few broken bikes and a few more memories.
Riddick insists he is the one who is most grateful.
"It is such a joy to see the happiness on children's faces," Riddick says. "It is a joy to get a hug and a thank you."
The bikes don't stop at the borders of Hickman County. Over the years, Riddick's bikes have been sent, with the help of other organizations, to Jackson, Kentucky, half a dozen western Kentucky communities, a children's home in North Carolina, four Baptist children's homes in Kentucky, and, via a missionary group, 70 bikes were sent to children in Ghana, Africa.
Riddick has also turned some of his farmland into a community playground. He built five zip lines the length of a football field and a long, wooden slide. It is now regularly reserved for birthday parties, ball teams, and church groups, all free of charge. Riddick says it's a fun alternative for "kids who don't get to go to Six Flags," but the kids who have been to Six Flags say his community playground is more fun.
In 2002, Riddick received a Governor's Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service. He now trains volunteers to prepare bikes for needy kids. If you would like to learn, call Riddick at (270) 653-4460.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: HOW TO HELP
If you would like to participate in any of these programs or donate to them, go to opportunity.