Updated: Aug 30, 2019
Statesville, North Carolina
The walls in the waiting area at Yokefellow Ministry are covered with flyers. Flyers about upcoming changes in Medicaid, a medical hotline, a list of SNAP sign-up dates, a flyer answering questions about foreclosure.
A young mother bounces her baby in her lap and is pointing out colors to her. The baby is repeating them. Red. Boo. Yewwow. “Yell-ow,” corrects the mother.
Another woman coos over the baby, and says she has a son the same age. “You know they have diapers here, right?”
“Yes, they helped me out last month when we ran out.”
“This center used to have a grocery store, it was built to have a grocery store,” says Kristine Wiles, Director of Yokefellow’s Helping Center. “But that left a while ago. This neighborhood doesn’t have a store anymore.” The closest grocery stores to this area of town are both over two miles away, with no clear walking route to get to them. “Transportation. That’s always going to be a big problem for low-income families. Owning a car is something a lot of people can’t afford.”
“A real challenge is that the bus system only runs two days a week in Statesville,” adds Yokefellow Executive Director Darryl McMillan. “The rest of the week it runs just for Medicaid and doctor’s appointments.”
A young father is pushing his daughter in a stroller across the parking lot, holding an umbrella over her to shade her from the glaring sun, headed towards Yokefellow. Behind him, an older gentleman with a cane is taking the same route.
“There is not a typical client here,” observes Kristine, glancing at the waiting area. “Lots of families, of course. Seniors and disabled folks definitely; people who can’t work. A common situation we see would be someone who is drawing a Social Security check and maybe even a retirement check. Fifteen years ago when they retired it was enough, but not now. Just look at inflation.”
“A thousand dollars a month was okay 15 years ago,” she continues. “It could have covered rent when it used to be only $300 in Statesville, but now the average is around $800… so everything shifts. And if you are getting over $1,000, you don’t qualify for food stamps. As a result, people have to come here.”
The people who are coming to Yokefellow’s food pantry are here, then, for two reasons: One, this area of Statesville is a food desert and food, especially fresh food, is hard to access and 2) regardless of how close food is, for too many families, incomes cannot be stretched far enough to cover their most basic needs.
The pantry is very orderly. It is a Client Choice pantry, meaning that those who need food assistance can select what foods they need, and want. It is set up like a grocery store; shelves hold canned items with their labels turned out, and 16 refrigerators of various sizes line the walls.
An older woman wearing a shirt that says “Proud Grandma” across the chest is pushing a shopping cart between the shelves selecting items, and Kristine helps her open one of the freezers to pull out some meat.
“I don’t want to give people food they won’t eat, I want them to choose what they will eat,” says Darryl.
“And it restores dignity,” adds Kristine.
Presumably some of the people coming to Yokefellow now used to come to this exact shopping center to shop when there was a grocery store here. But the cracking sidewalks and weather-worn houses surrounding the center indicate that time of relative prosperity has faded away.
“When a community depends on textiles and furniture, and that goes away…” says Darryl. He pauses. “More of our society than we would like to think are just one paycheck away from collapse.”
“A number of people work, but it’s not those kinds of jobs anymore,” picks up Kristine. “They just aren’t making enough money. The hospitals and schools are probably our largest employers in Statesville, but if you don’t have a degree, you turn to temp agencies. That’s how you find a job, and you just hope it becomes permanent. It may or may not.”
It is this understanding of a precarious employment market and precarious wages that have caused Kristine, Darryl, and the others at Yokefellow to see the whole picture of the people they serve. They have programs to help pay a utility bill and referrals for help if a family faces losing their home, or needs childcare, or wants to return to school.
“What we have to offer goes well beyond food. It also goes to things that families often can’t afford on tight budgets, like diapers.”
Darryl opens the door to a large closet, piled high with boxes of diapers. Simple things, necessary things.
Kristine tells the story of having a mother with four children in her office. “The baby was crawling, and her diaper was leaking across the floor. It was winter, her car had just gotten a flat tire, and she had no money.”
“I realized, what was she going to do? I had nothing for her.”
People had been asking frequently if Yokefellow had diapers—after all, diapers and similar items cannot be purchased with WIC nor SNAP (food stamps) and they can be incredibly expensive when your income is tight. Kristine and Darryl started a diaper bank within Yokefellow, and, now in its third year, they have over 270 local babies registered in the program. “People don’t rely solely on us for diapers, just like they don’t rely solely on us for food,” explains Kristine. “They may need to come for two months, and then they get a job and don’t have to come again for a while. But it’s here when they need it.”
“These are simple things, things that people just can’t do without,” adds Darryl.
Down on the other side of Family Dollar is the Yokefellow thrift store. It’s bustling this morning, and employees have already started to put out Halloween decorations that have been donated through the ministry. A tidy row of plastic pumpkin buckets—the type children collect candy in while trick-or-treating—are labeled: 25 cents.
The thrift store is self-supporting and employs five people from the community. “The jobs we provide are a part of our ministry as well,” explains Darryl. “The store manager came to us through the Council on Aging… the work here is a great place for seniors to retool and gain additional skills, while having an income.”
Clients who first interact with Yokefellow through the food pantry, diaper, or financial assistance programs sometimes have other needs. Kristine and Darryl may learn that they don’t have linens in their home or that their stove is broken or that they need clothing for a job interview. Yokefellow provides a certificate to individuals in these sorts of situations to “shop” at the thrift store. Even when not using a certificate, people in the community can find things here that they may not be able to access or afford elsewhere.
Kristine explains that in this area of Statesville—and in many places in Iredell County—the communities are so hard pressed that businesses just won’t come to the area, and when they do, or when local community members start businesses, the profit margins are not large enough to keep them open. From the parking lot of Yokefellow, which is on a major road, one can see two mechanic’s shops and a hair salon, but other businesses seem to be empty or not open. Two men are setting up a tent and grill near the road, preparing to sell lunches.
“I think it’s very important that we are here,” she says.