Why People of All Abilities Volunteer at Salt & Light

Why People of All Abilities Volunteer at Salt & Light

If you ever volunteered or visited at Salt & Light during the years we were an emergency food pantry, you would have found many people with various types of disabilities standing in line for food. This is a reflection of the face of America’s poor. Only around 30% of the people living in poverty in our country are considered able-bodied, fully employable people who are searching for work. The other 70%, while it also includes children, the elderly, and others, is comprised of a significant number of people who are considered disabled and unable to be employed.

In the United States, people who have a documented disability can qualify for permanent disability benefits and receive an income from government support systems. But the disability system, like many others, has drawbacks. The income received is usually barely sufficient for survival, and then only when used in combination with other benefit programs. And if recipients find a way to bring in any additional household income, benefits are cut in response, resulting in no net financial gain—in fact, people often experience a significant financial loss in this situation, since not only disability income can be cut, but other benefits the person was receiving will be decreased as well as a result of any new income.

When we began our system of member credit at Salt & Light in 2014, the first explanation of our system of volunteering to prospective members was often met with the answer, “Oh, I can’t do anything—I’m on disability!” I lost count of the number of times we heard the phrase “I can’t do anything”, almost always said with genuine fear and distress. The fear created by these systems is obvious and understandable, when people are confronted with the thought of doing anything that could jeopardize their survival, or cut a family off from their only systems of support. The other, less obvious effect is the communication of the message that disability means you are not able to do anything, especially not anything that will make a meaningful contribution, either to change your own situation, or to benefit others.

Now that we are no longer operating as an emergency relief organization but instead are a development-oriented community model, one of the main ideas underlying what we do is that every human being has skills, talents, gifts, and abilities given to them by God. There are no exceptions—disability is not a dis-qualifier. In other words, every human, no matter their age or ability, has some important contribution to make to the world, and everyone’s contribution is equally needed and equally valuable. As a result, there is a place for everyone at Salt & Light.

For our members, volunteering here earns store credit that supplements their household income without threatening their systems of support, so we can allow people to help themselves and their families without fear. But even more importantly, we are putting the lie to the message that any disability makes a person incapable of contributing meaningfully to the world. We are often thanked for the opportunity to earn the credit that helps many families move from surviving to thriving, but most often, we are thanked for the opportunity to work. Among our members and volunteers, you will find people with wheelchairs and walkers, oxygen tanks, canes, hearing aids, and a variety of other assistive devices. Our Salt & Light family includes those who are recovering from stroke or head injury, who live with autism, blindness, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and the list goes on, with many other physical, developmental, and cognitive delays and disorders. These are the people who run our stores every day. Alongside their friends, neighbors and community members, they bag groceries, stock shelves, sort donations, answer phones, manage data, greet customers, and welcome donors. We could not operate a single day without their efforts. No one’s work is more important or more valuable than another’s. Each person’s unique gifts, smile, struggle, heart, are what come together to create the place that makes our work possible. We would not be Salt & Light without each one of them.

So why does this matter to you as a customer in our stores, or a donor in our drive-thrus? There are two reasons. The first is that the expectations for what you encounter in our stores should be a little different than those in other retail settings. As you drop off your donations or browse through the clothing racks, you’ll notice that our team is made up of this beautiful, wide, diverse array of people. As a result, our environment is saturated with grace, because sometimes we need it. Sometimes we operate at a slower pace; sometimes our social interactions are a little awkward; sometimes we need a little help. But also, all the time, we are grateful. We are appreciative. We are happy to be here. This grace is what makes our stores a happy place. In our buildings, you’ll find more patience, more weirdness, more acceptance, and more joy.

The truth is, everyone sometimes moves a little more slowly. Everyone has bad days, limitations, weaknesses, quirks. Everyone needs help. And that’s the second reason why all this is important for you. The grace that is present for our volunteers and members is available to everyone, and that means you too—there are no exceptions. The contribution you make with your presence is equally valuable, equally needed; you will be equally accepted and equally loved. There is a place for everyone at Salt & Light.

Two Reasons to Volunteer as a Group at Salt & Light

At the beginning of Salt & Light’s existence as an organization, we were a typical food pantry and clothing closet. This type of operation functions as a large, assembly line style business, and so for the first ten years of our existence, our operating model was perfectly suited to utilizing large groups of volunteers, all being assigned to sort clothes, unload boxes, bag food, or some other uniform task. Churches, youth groups, Scout troops, corporate staff teams, student organizations, class field trips, mission organizations, service fraternities, clubs, homeschool co-ops, and all kinds of groups came to lend a hand in accomplishing our weekly emergency distribution.

Now that we have changed our model to one that is focused on developing individuals and building community, the inner workings at Salt & Light are more complex. People often wonder, is it still a good place for our group to come and volunteer together? The answer is yes, for two important reasons.

The first is the way that having groups of volunteers benefits Salt & Light. Our operations have grown exponentially in the past several years, and we have kept our staff lean—just around 40 paid staff for the entire organization, both locations, including everyone all the way up to the Executive Director. As a result, our stores are primarily staffed by volunteers seven days a week. Many of our regular volunteers are members who are earning credit here to spend on their groceries or household items, but we still need community volunteers to manage all the daily tasks involved in running our programs. A group of volunteers together can help us accomplish a lot in a short period of time. The entire group may work together to sort an enormous backlog of household or clothing donations. Or, they may be split up into smaller groups, some working in the thrift store, some in grocery, some in donations, and some directly helping customers. Either way, there are a lot of bases to cover every day, and a volunteer group goes a long way toward getting them covered.

It’s not just the work that volunteer groups get done, though, that is an important benefit to us at Salt & Light. When groups visit us here, each one gets the opportunity to hear from one of our staff about what we do here—how our programs work, the amazing things that are happening in our buildings every day, how their volunteering will be a part of it—and to take a tour of our facility. It’s our experience that this makes a huge impact in getting our message out to the community. While people often hear about what we do on the news or social media, or in churches or community groups where we speak, it is completely different to come to our building and see, hear, and experience for yourself. No one goes away untouched. For this reason, volunteer groups who come to Salt & Light are almost inevitably moved to get engaged in our mission. Not only is that same group likely to return, but people in the group tell their friends about us and post about us on social media. They donate and shop. They bring other groups that they are a part of. In many, many ways, groups come back.

The second reason Salt & Light is a good place for your group to volunteer is because of the way it will benefit your group. The time you spend together, if it’s spent looking beyond yourselves, at a way to invest back into your community and accomplish something worthwhile, will be an experience that is satisfying individually, and bonding communally. It is inherently a team-building experience. Not only that, but it’s likely that your time with us will be one of learning. Like the preschool class that spent an afternoon with us processing purses, bags, and backpacks while also practicing buttons, zippers, and snaps, it’s our goal that the experience of every one of our volunteers will be uniquely beneficial in moving toward new skills and development. This may mean learning how to do a new task, and it may mean growing in an ability like patience or persistence or teamwork. We hope it will also mean building new relationships that may be lasting, and that we believe are the foundation for personal growth.

And the most important benefit to your group we hope will be the challenge you’ll be offered for the future, to live intentionally, relate respectfully, and engage your community in ways that are healthy and strong. While you will definitely go away with a fun and satisfying experience for one day, we believe that the ideas we are promoting, the principles we value, the relationships we foster, and ultimately, the people we bring together, can be a change experience for a lifetime.

To serve with your group at Salt & Light, contact me by email at lisa@saltandlightministry.org.

WHY IS SALT & LIGHT OPENING A CHILDCARE ROOM?

Why is Salt & Light Opening a Childcare Room?

This fall, we’ll be opening a child care room at Salt & Light Urbana, staffed by volunteers, that will offer a safe, fun space for preschool-aged kids to play while parents volunteer, or attend a class or program on site. We’re starting small, with limited hours and resources, but we hope to grow as soon as it’s possible to offer this service during most, or even all, of our open hours. It’s not a community or staff day care; it’s not a preschool. So with such a narrow focus, it seems like a nice “extra” for volunteers, but you might wonder, is it really important?

Everyone knows that raising a child is expensive. This year, the estimated cost of raising a single child born in 2017 is just over $10,000 for expenses related directly to that child’s needs alone. And this figure only represents the costs for kids in a two-parent, two-income household—for single-parent households, child-related costs rise to more like $12,000 annually. This is particularly challenging for single parents, over 80% of whom are mothers, when the typical two-parent household brings in more than three times the income of a single-parent home. As many as 40% of the U.S. households headed by single parents are living in poverty. Many parents and families could use an extra measure of support in providing food, clothes, and all the other things their household needs. A member account at Salt & Light is an opportunity to do just that—but for parents who don’t have or can’t afford safe, reliable child care, volunteering here to earn credit for groceries, diapers, and all the clothes and shoes that kids outgrow so quickly just isn’t a possibility.

Without a child care space, we have always tried to make it possible anyway for parents to come and volunteer by bringing children with them. This has often worked all right as long as little ones are small enough to be held in a sling, or to ride in a grocery cart while a mom or dad is working. However, as soon as they are old enough to take off in their own direction, their active, curious play makes them anything but helpful to accomplishing their parents’ desired tasks. As a result, when parents come with toddlers and preschoolers, we are often required to give them volunteer jobs that allow them to be in an enclosed area, safe for their child to roam without wandering away, but separate and apart from other volunteers. This allows parents to earn the credit that helps support their families financially, but it fails to allow the opportunity to work alongside, talk to, and form relationships with others, which is an enormously important part of the benefit of membership at Salt & Light for everyone, but particularly for parents with young children, for whom isolation from other adults is already a significant issue. Without a safe place for kids to play on their own, parents can be engaged here as providers, but are still extremely limited in their opportunities to spend time with anyone other than their own child.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about working at Salt & Light is the way that kids have been an integral part of our community, particularly when they have come with their parents like this to volunteer. If you’ve come for a meeting with me in my office, during which we were joined by a preschooler coloring or a toddler demanding to see the bubbles on my screen saver, you know what I mean. But if children are to be truly a part of the Salt & Light family, that means it’s necessary for us to give them the same regard that we aspire to for adults. They deserve to be in a place that is safe, that considers their needs, in which they can be the focus of attention. It’s incumbent on us to think about what will give them dignity and show them respect, and to create an environment that lets them demonstrate their capacity, build their confidence, sharpen their skills. Riding them along in a grocery cart, while it’s sometimes fun and entertaining for us, can never do this in the way they need.

Salt & Light is intended to be a place for everyone, of every age and every ability, to learn and grow. Every person’s presence is an equally important contribution to creating our community, and the community can never be complete unless we make a place for each unique, irreplaceable, individual person. For moms, dads, kids, and all of us, the child care room is one more way we continue to work toward that every day.

To donate, volunteer, or for questions about Salt & Light’s child care room, contact Child Care Coordinator Dorinda Prince at dorinda@saltandlightministry.org.

 

4 WAYS SALT & LIGHT PARTNERS WITH CHURCHES

4 Ways Salt & Light Partners with Churches

Our mission here at Salt & Light is sharing the love of God by fighting poverty with opportunities that empower people for lasting change. As we work to accomplish this mission every day, we partner together with many groups, individuals, and organizations in the community, and some of our most important partnerships are with churches.

A partnership, by definition, is an arrangement in which both parties make a contribution, and both parties reap the benefits. As churches enter into partnership with Salt & Light, the contributions they make are often easy to identify—financial support, material donations, and volunteer service—and these have clear benefits for the organization. But it’s often less clear what contribution Salt & Light is making in these partnerships that would help to benefit churches as they fulfill their own mission. Here are four important ways that Salt & Light wants to partner with your church in the shared work of Kingdom-building in our community.

Salt & Light can help the people of your church:

  • develop spiritually healthy attitudes toward material wealth, poverty, and possessions. Our culture views poverty as the simple lack of material things. For people of faith, a close study of the Scripture paints a picture of poverty as much more than a solely material affair. Poverty of status, poverty of relationship, poverty of being, are all treated as an equal part of true poverty in the eyes of God. In their book “When Helping Hurts”, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert paint a picture of poverty as a brokenness that can apply to any of our foundational relationships with God, others, ourselves, or our possessions. Author Bryant Myers describes it as “the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” Working together with our participants at Salt & Light, truly getting to know those who lack material resources, helps bring a real-life understanding of the way those resources fail to define our true poverty or wealth. With this understanding, we can know that our material possessions can never truly make us rich. Therefore, having them or losing them isn’t of primary importance in our lives. Mutuality and generosity become more important. We can understand that fighting poverty means more than just helping others accumulate money. We can hold what we own more loosely. We can walk away from the need to control others in the area of their material possessions, or value them based on their material wealth.
  • develop a spiritually healthy view of themselves. If poverty is actually something we experience in all areas of life, and not just a material lack, then poverty is something we all experience. All of us carry some degree of brokenness—none of us are in the place of fullness that God intends for us. Understanding the true role of material possessions in determining wealth and poverty will not only help prevent us from undervaluing others based on their material lack, it will also help prevent us from overvaluing ourselves based on our material abundance. Our financial gifts and material donations are important and helpful contributions, but as we volunteer and shop alongside others in Salt & Light’s buildings, we’ll see many others who are making contributions just as valuable, with their time, ability, wisdom, joy, and the sacrificial giving of the limited resources they have. We’ll begin to understand that it’s not our gifts that cause lasting life change in others, but the opportunities they help to create for others to use their gifts as well.
  • develop spiritually healthy relationships with others. No one wants to be someone else’s project. But if poverty is something we are all experiencing, then the path to abundance—material, relational, and spiritual—is something we are all walking together. The ability to grow and learn from each other in relationship is most effective when it is mutual—when each person knows that they are accepted by the other as they are, as equals, who both have something to contribute and something to learn. Salt & Light’s model is built for community participation on equal footing; it is a not a system that requires impoverished recipients and wealthy benefactors. Every person in your church who gets involved here will be part of a system in which everyone is making a contribution that is equally valued, as they shop, volunteer, and share. This means everyone is also a recipient of all the benefits of the relationships, learning, and community that are built here.
  • develop a spiritually mature understanding of the gospel. The message of the gospel is the message of reconciliation—of coming into right relationship. God wants to bring us into right relationship with him, and as a result, into right relationships with others, with ourselves, and with material creation. As believers in Christ, we’ve been made ambassadors of the Kingdom, but to effectively fulfill that responsibility, we must understand the nature of our message. The good news of the gospel is that we are all poor and broken, and we are invited into a Kingdom that is offered only to the poor. Through our work here at Salt & Light, we are able to see ourselves as all equally broken, all equally impoverished, but all equally loved, chosen, and sought after by God. The practical ways that we work together here to create opportunity, sharpen skills, build community, and meet needs, are all ways that we move together toward that reconciliation in all areas, as we learn to more fully live out the heart of the gospel.

The staff at Salt & Light works with churches to do small group presentations, tours, special events and projects, monthly engagement, and even sermon series that can support your congregation’s work in these areas of discipleship, generosity, and spiritual growth. We would love to talk with you further about opportunities to partner with your church.

the real question of poverty

The Real Question of Poverty

 

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about poverty.  It seems like there is ongoing controversy about what can be done to help those in poverty.  Although lots of people from all kinds of different philosophical and religious backgrounds feel it’s important to help the poor, and all are approaching the issue with good intentions, just as with most things that are truly important, there are strong disagreements regarding how to go about it.  I don’t mean to minimize the efforts of all those who are working hard and often making great sacrifices to do what they feel is in the best interests of America’s poor, but I wonder how often we are jumping the gun by debating the question of methodology before answering a much more important question.  I think that before we can truly know anything about how to help those in poverty, we first have to ask, exactly what is poverty?