The call to serve can come at an unexpected time, in an unexpected place.
For Connie Staley of Greensburg, it came during a dinner hosted by a church she attended. The sumptuous meal cost $30 per person and was served at a local banquet facility.
“It was a beautiful dinner,” she says, “but I kept thinking about people who didn’t have any Christmas dinner or anyone to share the holiday with.”
For Trish Ritchie of Lower Burrell, it came from her job as a newspaper reporter, sitting in courtrooms and hearing stories of people who needed help but had no idea where or how to find it.
“As a reporter, you can’t get involved, but these stories would just tug at my heart,” she says. “There are all these wonderful programs out there that people don’t know about. I wanted to be a go-between to help people access them.”
A heart for helping
Staley’s foray into a life of service began when she started attending the now-disbanded Relevant Church, a Jeannette-based congregation that once held services Greensburg’s Palace Theatre.
Relevant Church had “a heart for the homeless in the city,” she says, and in 2014 started a program to distribute backpacks holding emergency supplies to that population.
“We found that they didn’t really want to be found,” she says, and the church had more success providing a drop-in soup-and-sandwich meal.
That led to the creation in June 2016 of the Greater Things Resource Center at 3 W. Otterman St., which she and her husband George Staley now run — unpaid — and which has been adopted as an arm of Latrobe-based Faith Forward human services ministry.
Greater Things partners with area churches, volunteers and donors to provide a hot meal and recovery group meeting on Thursdays; drop-in hours on Tuesdays; free clothing, personal care and other items from the Blessing Store; and other emergency help — no forms to fill out and few (if any) questions asked, says Connie Staley.
They open the doors on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, so people have a place to go.
The Staleys, who both have other jobs, also are available by phone to address situations that arise outside of open hours — including emergency housing and transportation.
Ritchie has formed The Building Block of Natrona, a registered nonprofit that hosts a free food distribution program on the third Saturday of every month in the Knights of Columbus Council 2602 hall in Natrona. The food — mostly produce — is provided by 412 Food Rescue of Pittsburgh.
There’s also a Cosmetics Closet that provides oral care items, soap and shampoo, female hygiene products, toilet paper and tissue, among other items, through grants from nonprofit and corporate partners including the Pittsburgh Mills Walmart.
The Building Block only got up and running in October 2018, but Ritchie says she would like to be able to expand the food distribution to every week and add an after-school program offering computer access and homework help.
This summer, the organization will participate with the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank and Natrona Comes Together Association in a local weekday free lunch program.
Bodies and souls
Whether it’s feeding bodies, souls or both, the Staleys and Ritchie say the needs are great.
“Natrona is a true food desert. It’s about a mile-and-a-half walk uphill to the nearest grocery store,” Ritchie says. “There isn’t any public transportation nearby and not everyone has a car.
“Every person we see has more than one issue — they’re on SSI, living check to check, they need a job or job retraining, there are addiction issues,” she says. “To me, it is a crime in America that people are going hungry.”
Ritchie does an informal, anonymous survey at each food distribution to keep track of the number of adults and children being served, along with household income level.
In March, she says, of 73 households served, 61 were at or below the poverty level. Many clients have neither computer nor smart phone and find out about the program via flyers distributed in the community.
Demographics are not tracked at Greater Things, but the Staleys say they see a similar clientele, including people who are homeless, people dealing with mental health and addiction issues, people who are without the support of family or friends.
“We’re looking to connect people with where they need to go,” Connie Staley says. “We look for opportunities for people to get out of the cycle of dependency.”
Along with food and clothing, they receive a message of love from the Christian gospel.
“We want people to come in here for help, whatever that looks like. We want everyone to know that their life has purpose,” she says. “As Mother Theresa said, the greatest need is love. There’s grace for everyone here.”
‘Provision from God’
George Staley says resources just sort of miraculously appear when they’re needed.
“It’s kind of give and receive,” he says. “It comes in and it goes out.”
He points to a recent situation in which a family was in need of a baby stroller, “and somebody walks in the door with a stroller and says, ‘Do you need this?’”
“Everything we do here is given by provision from God,” Connie Staley says.
For both Greater Things and The Building Block, willing hands also have been provided. Each organization has a core group of dedicated volunteers.
Food for the Greater Things Tuesday meal is provided on a rotating basis by Jeannette Assembly of God, Keystone Church in Greensburg, Ligonier Valley Bible Church and St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Greensburg.
When Ritchie began building her nonprofit, she says local community leaders and pastors gladly agreed to serve on the board of directors.
“There’s been such cooperation and willingness to share resources in the community,” she says. “It’s a missional outreach for the Knights of Columbus, and we’re so grateful to them for letting us use their space.”
She also credits her husband Jim Ritchie and daughters Lindsay and Natalie for their support: “They’ve put up with the odd hours and the house being overrun with boxes. Jim is there at every outreach and he never complains.”
‘Just like family’
As Kimberley Monroe of Greensburg searched the Greater Things Blessing Store for a purse on a recent Thursday morning, she said, “This is a nice place with nice people. They’re just like family.”
Mike, another Greensburg resident, also dropped in for “some companionship and fellowship.” (“And the coffee,” said George Staley.)
“In a world full of greed, gluttony, lies and despair, these people are above all that,” Mike said. “They don’t have to do any of this; they choose to be good people.”
No big deal, according to Trish Ritchie: “We strap on our boots and serve the people coming through the doors. I’m grateful to be out here doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”