Tomorrow morning, I will show up to split firewood for three hours in the wood yard at Thermal Belt Outreach Ministries, part of a group of volunteers that includes members of the church I serve. It is cold tonight, as it can get in December in the Blue Ridge foothills of Western North Carolina, and the firewood is for people for whom a woodstove is a major source of heat.
On Thursday afternoon, as I was led back to George Alley’s cluttered office in the rear of the main building of Thermal Belt, I passed the intake office, where another member of my church was volunteering, met a couple of staff members, and passed a number of volunteers, some stocking food shelves, others entering data into computers, and several on the phone with clients.
Like Volunteer Services in Winona, Minnesota, and Outreach United Resources in Longmont, Colorado, Thermal Belt Outreach was founded in the early 90s. This was after a 1986 study identified Polk County as one of 200 counties in the country with the greatest amount of poverty per capita, and a group of church, non-profit and social service leaders decided to take action to provide basic needs of people living at or near the poverty line.
George has been at Thermal Belt a year, and he comes in a line of leaders that started with Eloise Thwing, the first Board Chair who became the Executive Director in 1992. I’ve met Eloise at White Oak, an eldercare facility where she lives, and where I sing once a month with a group organized by The Congregational Church. You can still see the fire of commitment and compassion that burns in her eyes.
2016 has been a year of introspection, visioning, and planning at Thermal Belt. It started as a provider of goods and services to people in crisis, and George has been using the organization’s 25th anniversary to get the Board to ask questions like, “What have we done, and done well, in those 25 years?” Meeting crisis needs is their bread and butter, but George asks, “What can we realistically do to trigger a rise out of the crisis cycle and into a better life?”
That’s a challenge with multi-generational poverty. Thermal Belt is evolving, George says. “Over the past year, I’ve observed that there’s such a web of organizations in Polk County, all providing services, many of the same kinds of services, and there’s some overlap.”
This past year, in all sorts of meetings with providers, he’s seen and heard philanthropists and people of goodwill in all kinds of organizations, in none of which is there a mechanism for clients to have a voice. Thermal Belt surveyed the 500 or so households who use their services, and discovered that 80% of those who responded said they’d be willing to be part of a client advisory council.
George comes from the non-profit sector—he’s been a park superintendent in Tryon, a Red Cross chapter executive director, among other positions—and his experience has taught him that clients need a voice in the kinds of services organizations provide. It’s a simple matter of good stewardship: what people are willing to offer needs to align with what people's real needs are.
When I landed in Tryon, I felt like I was in the mythical NC mountain village called Mitford, out of Jan Karon’s Father Tim novels, which is attractive for its unchanging, old-fashioned main street and kind-hearted people. But with the expansion of the Tryon International Equestrian Center and the world-class events it hosts, Polk County is changing—a LOT. What will be the effect on seasonal employees? Will the Center’s presence continue to drive up real estate values, pricing many more people out of the market? Will there be a growing need for seasonal housing and services?
An organization’s evolution has to be guided by more than good intentions; George and Thermal Belt are on it.