Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 16, 2012

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Benzie County agency among handful regionwide providing food, other assistance

By LORAINE ANDERSON
landerson@record-eagle.com

BENZONIA — It was 9:45 a.m. Monday at Benzie Area Christian Neighbors. A young woman sat on a bench outside, hugging herself against the morning cold, waiting for the doors to open at 10.

Inside, more than a dozen volunteers prepared for the 58 "neighbors" they would see over the next four hours.

Most, like the young woman who was first in line, asked for "Bacon Bucks" to shop for food in the nonprofit's grocery store. Others picked out free donated clothing in the BACN's thrift shop. Some took home free weatherization kits. Still others needed help with utility bills, medical matters or transportation.

"Neighbors" is an operative word in BACN's general philosophy. Everyone who enters the building, whether client, staff or volunteer, is considered a neighbor.

"Everyone is a peer," said development director Dave Abeel.

Executive director Gerri VanAntwerp lists three core values on the BACN web page:

-- To give is to receive and to receive is to give.

-- All people are to be treated with dignity and respect.

-- Honest and transparency are the basis for all activities and relationships.

BACN, pronounced "bacon," also has three mottos:

-- Everyone has a name.

-- Everybody can make good choices.

-- Everyone can give back.

About 30 percent of its neighbor-clients chose to become volunteers.

Tammy Metiva, who was working in the grocery store Monday morning, has been both neighbor-client and a neighbor-volunteer for three to four months following a kidney/pancreas transplant.

"BACN helped me, and I figured this was a way to pay back," she said.

The BACN grocery store is equipped with shelves, a cooler for fresh vegetables and two refrigerators for other perishable foods. BACN Buck amounts are based on household size.

The food comes from two main sources — Feeding America and the more local Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan, Abeel said.

Feeding America is the nation's largest hunger-relief charity, with 200 food banks that supply food to more than 37 million Americans each year, including 14 million children and 3 million seniors.

Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan is a Goodwill Industries program founded in 2008. It collects dated food from area grocery stores and distributes it to the poor through the region's 56 pantry programs.

The 58 families BACN served Monday included 49 who came for food. Nine others sought financial assistance. Two were homeless, seven were living with others, 26 owned their house and 23 were renters.

Monday's neighbors also included 26 unemployed, 14 employed (including six part-time seasonal or under-employed), five retired and 13 disabled people.

BACN is one of five area nonprofits in the five-county Grand Traverse region working as a network to help area families living in, or on the edge, of poverty stay in their homes and avoid homelessness in the face of unemployment, illnesses, lack of health insurance and high heating and/or medical bills.

The other non-profits are Antrim County's Good Samaritan Family Services in Ellsworth, Kalkaska Area Interfaith Resources in Kalkaska, Leelanau Christian Neighbors and Father Fred Foundation based in Traverse City.

Together, they served thousands of families across the five counties over this past year.

BACN was founded in 1983 by 12 Benzie churches and is now a nonprofit that serves 1,600 distinct families and averages about 800 visits a month, Abeel said. It employs three full-time staff members and one part time. It also has a strong base of regular year-round volunteers and another 75 seasonal volunteers who work an average of four hours a week.

Its financial assistance budget for this year was $158,000. The agency's "100-pound gorilla" is utility bill assistance, which is expected to total about $110,000 this year, Abeel said.

BACN's services also include GED classes where neighbors can earn a high school diploma and a computer lab where they can connect directly with state human service sites.

The nonprofit's overall budget for the year totals about $450,000. Of that, $192,000 came from individual and business donations, $140,000 from foundations, $35,000 from churches and $18,000 from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.