MARYVILLE, Mo. — While driving north on Main Street, it's easy to overlook the somewhat nondescript, bluish-gray building just past Shell Service and Repair, however, it's difficult to ignore the impact The Ministry Center has had on Maryville, Nodaway County and the community it serves.
Founded in 1999, The Ministry Center, sponsored by The Maryville Ministerial Fellowship, consolidated the efforts of several ministries into the former NAPA Auto Parts building.
“We wanted to better utilize the resources of the community,” the Rev. Mark Albee of the First Baptist Church said at the time of its opening. “We want to be good stewards of the funds entrusted to us by the community.”
At that time, a community food pantry was housed at the United Methodist Church. A clothes room was located in a house owned by the First Baptist Church. Catholic Charities provided a variety of counseling services and it was located in the First Christian Church.
Even with the scattered locations of these ministries causing some duplication of services, and being wholly inconvenient to those seeking help, the Maryville Ministerial Fellowship helped many in need within the area.
In 1998, and in its separate location, the food pantry served 803 families and filled 2,950 orders. The clothes room saw more than 1,500 visits from families and more than 20,000 items distributed locally.
The original purpose statement for the organization was, “For the love of God and concern for others, the ministry center seeks to provide for the spiritual health and physical well-being of residents of Nodaway County.”
For the past 20 years, The Ministry Center has accomplished that and more through the work of its volunteers. It has offered people in Nodaway County that which is necessary for survival, but often too costly for some to afford — basic food and clothing.
Serving a community need
Merlin Atkins, executive director of the center, estimates The Ministry Center provided food for 60 families each year for the first five years. In each of the following five years the organization served about 100 families. From 2009 to 2013, Atkins said the center served around 170 families each year. From 2014 until 2018, the center provided food for about 180 families per year.
“Right now, we serve approximately 500 people a month for food and they serve approximately 200 to 300 families per month for clothing,” he said. “In 20 years we went from 25,000 pounds of food the first year, to 400,000 last year. We'll get close (this year).”
Since moving to Maryville in 2009, the Rev. Jonathan Mitchell with First Presbyterian Church in Maryville has helped with the center. He said this ministry is very close to his heart.
“I've never seen it run this well. A lot of food bank/clothing pantries are kind of cobbled together and its fits and starts,” He explains that it works because, “the whole community is behind it. It's all in one place.”
He also said the amount of food a family takes home has grown, “tremendously,” since the center opened.
Atkins explained the center had around 30,000 pounds of food total donated to the center and go out to families that first year.
“(Now) from Walmart, we get at least 4,000 pounds of food per month,” he said. “We get 2,400 pounds a week from Hy-Vee in bread and bakery. Then you take that times 50. There's another 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of food. We never used to get that. We used to have to go buy bread.”
When the pantry first opened Atkins said they would give out two bags of groceries per family.
“That's all they got,” he said. “We tried keep it fair. The way it is now, the person who comes in at the first day of the month gets exactly the same as the person who comes in the last day of the month.”
Set up like a grocery store, the family comes in and a volunteer goes with them. They get a short amount of time to go through the food aisles and pick out what they want.
“One person will have a whole cart load by the time they get out of there,” Atkins said. “Now a family of seven or eight – we have no control over what we get from Walmart meat-wise – that's where any extra meat goes, to large families.”
The Ministry Center also provides food to churches in Parnell and Burlington Junction and in turn it is delivered to families who need them in those areas.
“What's nice is a lot of what we get from Walmart is meat, produce and eggs,” Mitchell said. “Through Second Harvest (Community Food Bank in St. Joseph), we can sometimes get a pallet of potatoes or a pallet of this or that, you get a wide variety of things.”
He likes that people can go through and pick what they want because it is less wasteful as they're getting food they will eat.
“One time we got some of those giant boxes of (Frosted Flakes),” Atkins recalled. “Oh those kids would almost cry when they saw those boxes. I made sure the (families) with kids got those big boxes. We've just been lucky that way.”
Playing a big role in the consolidation is the building itself. From renting to purchasing and eventually adding more space, the building has grown with the organization and community.
“We started 20 years ago,” Atkins said. “When we got done working on the building we had a $12,000 balance and our contributions here were only about $8,000. But we only had about 50 people in there. … We've just had a slow and steady increase ever since then.”
Thanks to local organizations, churches and individual donors The Ministry Center was able to purchase the building around 2003 and even expand in 2008.
“We had the money to pay for for the building before we could sign the papers on it,” said Atkins. “We had the money to pay for the expansion before the building was done.”
When something needed repair, community members went out of their way to sell material to the organization at their cost, he explained.
“We've had several different businesses come in and just donate their time to help fix something,” Atkins said. “Through the years we've probably saved at least $10,000 from people just donating their time.”
Saying he's very happy with the progress the organization has made, the director explained that because they don't owe anything, the funds brought in actually get used to help feed the community.
“I don't know how it could have done better,” Atkins said. “We've made some mistakes through the years, but everybody does. We have the building in excellent condition. We've added to the parking lot. We put cement in and we don't owe anything, so what money we get in gets to actually go to help buy food.”
In 2017, community members honored George and Juanita English's many decades of service to others through The Ministry Center.
The couple had been with The Ministry Center since its beginning. They also are the originating founders of the clothing room, even before it found a home at The Ministry Center.
During the ceremony where a bench was dedicated in their honor, the Rev. Jonathan Mitchell told the crowd assembled that they are very devoted and thanked them for their service.
“We have really inherited this ministry from you and hope to carry it on,” he said. “You've given it to us in such good and wonderful hands, we thank you for that. The amount of lives you have touched with your hard work and care and love here is unimaginable. It's uncountable and we thank you for that gift.”
Atkins said though they had volunteers, they were the ones who were there every single day.
“Without them at the start, we could not have made it,” he said. “They also helped considerably financially … just because they wanted to help get it going.”
As much as some members of the community rely on The Ministry Center, the organization requires the help of community volunteers. While it may seem like a small task finding some help, handling all that food can be hard work for those with available time.
“We've been short volunteers once or twice, but usually we have at least as many volunteers as we need,” said Mitchell. “(In other food pantries) usually you're begging people to come.”
Atkins says it hasn't always been that way and that many times it was just him and his wife Kay at the center helping people.
“Now, we've got the people to handle it anymore,” he said. “We've got 10 volunteers that I know will be there and that's not counting the churches.”
While volunteers often stay for many years, some can't for various reasons and leave. Normally turnover can cause a bit of stress, but at the center, Atkins said they usually have just enough to perform their duties.
Atkins said the organization has been fortunate enough that when one door closes, another opens, and someone shows up to help.
“When someone has to leave and do something else, it has been unbelievable that within a month someone else will step up,” he said.
The food pantry side of the center sees about 700 volunteer hours a month. The center requires about 150 volunteer hours per month in the clothing room.
“The whole community pitches in,” Mitchell said.
College, high school and middle school students help throughout the week.
“That's really cool for me to see, because when you teach a young person the importance of volunteering, that will stick with them,” he said. “Thanks for the blessings the community gives to us.”
Atkins thanked all the churches in Nodaway County for their support.
“The churches are like our backbone, but everybody else provides the things that work,” said Atkins. “Like the United Way, and individuals.”
He also thanked Rod and Sharon Shain for being longtime coordinator and treasurer.
“I've been with it since day one,” said Atkins. He intends to stay working at the center until he can no longer physically achieve it.
How to get help
Anyone interested in procuring food or signing up for the clothing room should stop by during the open hours for more information.
“Anyone who gets food stamps is eligible to get food,” said Atkins. “Most people go to Community Services (Inc.) or to Family Services. Ours is always the No. 1 referral. If they refer one, we'll do our darnedest to help them.”
Open for 20 years now, Atkins said nothing has ever been charged for anyone who went through their doors. He said they do have a donation jar for the clothing room, but that it totals about $40 per year.
“No one has ever been charged for a single thing that has gone through there,” Atkins said.
He went on to describe a couple times he's helped people in tough situations and how some people have come in, in tears and seeking help. He stressed that it's OK for that to happen. That's exactly what The Ministry Center hopes to accomplish, help those in need.
“There's been a least a dozen times in all the years, that something would convince me that we needed to go down there,” Atkins said nearing tears. “Three of those times was someone on the run from their husband. Two of them were actually going to Minnesota, but we happened to be there the hour they pulled in. Now tell me that's happenstance.”
Starting May 1, The Ministry Center will begin a monthlong open house for community members to visit and learn about the center. On that day, The Maryville Rotary Club plans to hold a community celebration at 2 p.m. and will provide refreshments.
“We want people to come in and see what we do,” said Atkins.
The Ministry Center is open from 1 to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The clothing room is open from 2 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays.