Ministry streamlines to focus only on housing, crisis assistance
By Jessica Connor
JOHNS ISLAND—For 42 years, Rural Mission has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of impoverished island people, repairing their homes and educating their children.
Now, the Mission is evolving its mission. It has turned over the reins of its migrant Head Start efforts to the parent agency so Rural Mission can focus solely on housing and crisis assistance for the Sea Islands rural poor.
It is a major shift for the United Methodist Advance Special Ministry, but one its leaders feel is Spirit-led and ultimately for the best.
We re calling it ˜the transition, and it s been a smooth transition, said Linda Gadson, longtime executive director of Rural Mission. We saw the handwriting on the wall.
Instead of spreading itself thin trying to do everything for the very low-income island people, the ministry can now streamline its focus. Since 1980, Rural Mission has been a delegate agency of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, getting money from the federal government so it can carry out its early education program for the children of local migrant workers. This is in addition to Rural Mission s primary work in housing assistance, crisis support, providing basic daily needs and uplifting faith.
But the dual-pronged focus was difficult for both Rural Mission and the ECMHSP. Rural Mission might have been running the migrant Head Start program on its Johns Island campus, but as the grantee, ECMHSP had to provide oversight and be sure Rural Mission s board was accountable. And to ensure proper governance, Rural Mission s board had to travel, attend meetings and otherwise work hand-in-hand with ECMHSP “ in addition to their visioning for the increasingly important housing focus of the Mission.
It was too much, Gadson said.
As of June 1, in a joint decision, Rural Mission and ECMHSP made an amicable split. ECMHSP now directly runs the Migrant Head Start program on the Rural Mission campus, leasing space from the ministry.
And Rural Mission is now doing what it has come to be known for “ repairing homes and providing emergency assistance with electricity, heating bills and other needs.
I see it as my baby becoming an adult and being able to go out on its own, Gadson said of the split. It s a good thing.
In some ways, the evolution is so seamless that it is difficult to tell what changed. The staff is still there, with some changes. Dana Rogers, who had been director of Rural Mission Migrant Head Start, is now the S.C. Head Start administrator for South Carolina Direct Services, the regional office that operates ECMHSP. And Mattie Legare, who had been Rural Mission Migrant Head Start s education and disabilities specialist, is now the center director of the program, which is operated in four locations, including Rural Mission s Johns Island campus. Both still retain offices inside Rural Mission.
There s really not a lot of difference, Legare said.
Rogers called the reorganization a win-win for everyone: It s in the best interest for the children and families, and the staff. The greater need is providing services to island residents, so now Rural Mission can get a whole lot more done.
It also helps Rural Mission from a financial perspective, slimming down a budget that often was confusing to donors and others. Before the split, Rural Mission s budget was more than $1.5 million because it included a million-dollar grant from the federal government to operate Head Start. Now, the budget is less than $500,000.
Before, people would think, ˜Wow, they re rich! Gadson said, laughing “ that certainly is not the case.
The more slender budget is now a true reflection of where Rural Mission actually stands, and where it needs to be.
Seeking prayer, volunteers, donations
And there is a lot of need. More than a quarter of the island population lives below the poverty level, and one in every five rural Sea Island low-income homes is severely substandard.
Rural Mission is working to finish several ongoing housing projects before winter, and there are many more it would like to begin if they can secure funding.
The staff said their hearts go out to the people who live day-in and day-out in deplorable conditions: people like the Youngblood family, who never had a bathroom but are now getting a new roof and new plumbing and electrical systems; the Gethers family, who recently moved into their new home after their old one literally began to fall down around them thanks to termites, leaks, drafts and a crumbling foundation; the Boykin family, a grandmother, her two daughters and six grandchildren who live together in one house and need an additional room to help with the overflow; the Foggy family, a young mother with six children ages 4 to 12 whose old house needs work on interior bedroom floors and an upgraded electrical system; the Bligen family, who desperately need a wheelchair ramp; the Bonneau family, who have a huge hole in their living room floor; the Moreira family, whose house needs full winterization and the completion of a kitchen and bathroom. The list goes on.
There is such a massive need, and not enough resour-ces, Gadson said.
But while other ministries are folding or downsizing because of financial woes, Rural Mission is grateful just to be able to stay afloat and do good. As a project of the General Board of Global Ministry s Women s Division and an Advance Special Ministry, Rural Mission gets some funding, but not nearly enough to operate as it would like to. Gadson hopes people will consider helping the ministry grow into its refocused mission. Her team is seeking prayer, volunteers to help complete projects or serve on the board, and donations to operate and to repair homes.
They now have a volunteer guesthouse and fully refurbished pier dormitory to accommodate groups of up to 50 “ Gadson calls it Hotel Rural Mission “and they are seeking skilled workers to come and stay a day, a week, a month or longer to help fix homes.
They also have a truck or van on their wish list so they can more easily transport volunteers or building materials to repair sites.
With their reinvigorated, refocused mission, Rural Mission leaders now consider their future to be bright.
I feel the Holy Spirit is moving and directing us, Gadson said. We know it s only God making this happen.