Saturday, November 6, 2010

Red Bird Mission, serving the needs of Eastern Kentucky

The Red Bird area of Kentucky is deep in the Appalachian Mountains, in Bell, Clay, and Leslie counties. The rugged mountains make for beautiful scenery, but also difficult transportation, little employment, and extreme poverty. While on average, about 17% of Kentuckians live below the federal poverty level, in these 3 counties, the poverty levels are far worse: 35%, 37%, and 29%.  These 3 counties are all ranked in the top 20 poorest counties in the entire country.

How should we work to help ensure that residents here have food to eat, can meet their basic needs, and share in the opportunities afforded the rest of the country?

We can’t imagine a better solution than Red Bird Mission.

Red Bird Mission is located near the tiny post office of Beverly, KY.  Founded with just a school in 1921, today it has grown to a full-service mission of the United Methodist Church, the only one of its kind in the U.S. It serves approximately 14,000 people each year.

The large main campus includes the mission school, clinics, offices for community outreach, a large work camp with dining hall and cabins, volunteer quarters, several residences for mission directors, a volunteer fire department, storage for building materials, and maintenance facilities for the buildings and the Mission’s 50 vehicles. A second campus houses a church and senior center.

We met with Director of Community Outreach Tracy Nolan (left), Development Manager Tonya Asher, Family Ministries Outreach Manager Stacia Carwell, and Garden Project Coordinator Nancy Seaberg.

Red Bird Mission programs and services cover all the areas you might think would be important to this community:
  • Education through the Red Bird Mission School for 160 students in grades K-12.
  • Health and Wellness including medical and dental clinics, a pharmacy, home care, and health education programs.
  • Economic Opportunity through a craft store for local artisans and the Community Store, which offers high-quality used clothing.
  • On the left you see Tonya next to donated clothing in the arrival area.  Donations are then sorted, washed, and sold extremely inexpensively in the bright, clean store shown on the right.  The Community Store is often a person's first introduction to the services of Red Bird Mission.
  • Work Camp for improvements to homes in the area. Each year, about 3000 volunteers (up to 120/week) repair over 200 homes and help improve living conditions for residents of the Red Bird area.
  • Community Outreach.  We spent most of our visit learning about Community Outreach. We were particularly interested in programs helping Red Bird area residents become food secure through farming and gardening. We’ll describe those programs in the next blog posting.
But the full list of social services and community development programs is vast -- way too long to describe in detail here. The small staff (5 full-time, 8 part-time or occasional, and numerous volunteers) handle
Two volunteers filling Christmas boxes
with all new, donated  toys, books,
clothing, linens, and personal care items
for about 500 children who otherwise
would have little or nothing at Christmas.

  • Community aid (e.g., food pantry and government commodities)
  • Services for seniors (e.g., transportation, senior center, and senior housing)
  • Services for pregnant women and children (e.g., home visits, preschool, and summer youth programs)
  • Services for families (e.g., adult education, transitional housing, and Christmas boxes).
Community Outreach staff work one-on-one with people who come to Red Bird Mission. They form close relationships. As a person is ready, they build a set of services to meet their individual needs, and encourage them to move away from crisis and hunger insecurity to self-sufficiency.

One thing that enables outreach services to reach more people is that many of the programs are not unique or invented by Red Bird Mission. Rather, Community Outreach seems masterful in partnering with helpful existing programs, tailoring them to meet local needs, and making them available at the mission through grants, providing the space, or just setting up the meetings. The Mission is the catalyst. Examples of programs in this category include USDA Commodities, GED adult education, Heifer International, and Family-to-Family.

Overall, our experiences at Red Bird Mission left us awed and inspired by the important work and Christian service we saw everywhere.

Mission staff members hold deep respect for the local culture. Many grew up here, graduated from Red Bird Mission School, and are currently raising families here. We heard over and over about strengths such as these: People here are very family oriented; they own their land; relatives and several generations are likely to reside near each other. People here take care of their own; even though there’s a very high homeless rate, you don’t see it because multiple generations and multiple families may live in one house. People here are very proud and resilient; they have a history of hunting, gardening, and canning, so they can survive tough circumstances.

Red Bird Mission also inspires dedicated volunteers. We met several folks who were living in the volunteer quarters with us or who were participating in the work camp while we were there. Person after person told us they had been coming for a week or more every year for 10 or 20 years or more. We met a volunteer who was currently serving as an aide at Red Bird Mission School for the entire year. We met another family who came for a year and are still there 38 years later.

Who knows, maybe we’ll meet you there one day, too.

1 comment:

  1. My mother, who lived in Manchester, went to the doctor at Red Bird. They took good care of her. She was a tough patient! Right before she died, daddy finally talked her into going to the doctor, and she went to Red Bird. They did everything humanly possible for her, daddy said, and when they saw she was dying, they called TWO ambulances, to ensure one would get there. She lived, and while she was in Manchester Hospital (which is a good hospital, BTW), her doctors came to visit her. The Lord took her shortly after, but she was happy in those days she had, and Red Bird gave her those days.

    My mother was a hoarder, and she loved to shop in the community store! When I went, I loved to shop there, too. DD and I need to go shopping , since we haven't been since we moved back home.

    My husband was in the Navy for over 20 years. The kids and I managed to come home average every three months. I took my kids to Red Bird's Nurse Practitioners (they weren't APRNs at the time), because I trusted them with my children's healthcare. l stick a little closer to home, now, and see a PA or APRN in Manchester. I don't keep so well when I travel, LOL

    I did get to thank the doctors for the care they gave my mother when she was dying. But I have never thanked anyone for all the wonderful care given my family over the years. From the front desk, to the doctors and nurses, the dental clinic, medical records, janitorial staff, and to everyone else involved in our treatment, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. God has given you a wonderful mission, and you do it well.