Dignity to Wilmington’s Poor

BY Simon Gonzalez

The Guy with the Bologna Sandwich

It’s the day before Hurricane Matthew is due to hit and Rick Stoker is looking for the homeless.

Weather experts aren’t certain about the path or severity of the storm but Stoker isn’t taking any chances. Strong winds rain and flooding can be devastating for people living in the woods or under the bridge. So he’s out in his van picking them up and taking them to the Red Cross shelter.

It’s raining as he heads down the road looking for one elderly lady in particular.

“Nobody notices her ” Stoker says. “She lives 10 feet off a main road in a bunch of bushes with a little tent and quilts and a piece of old carpet in front of her tent and we don’t see her. She’s 80 years old and living in the woods. Think about where we want to be when we’re 80. It’s not in a tent. I promise you that.”

He finds her and takes her to the shelter after first stopping to give her a rare treat — sweet tea from Hardee’s. Along the way she pulls out a photo.

“She showed me a picture of me and her hugging that someone had taken a long time ago ” Stoker says. “She said ‘I’ve had this 15 years because you’re my friend that doesn’t leave.’ When I let her out I wept. If she’ll hold onto a picture of me just a guy with a bologna sandwich think about how she feels about the people who have impacted her life who she never sees again.”

It’s women children and men like this — the overlooked the forgotten the homeless the hungry the poor — that prompted Stoker to found First Fruit Ministries.

The Wilmington-based outreach goes into the streets to give meals to the homeless provides transitional housing for women and supplies groceries and clothing to all comers three times a week out of a pantry at the ministry headquarters off Shipyard Boulevard.

“We’re a ministry to the poor ” Stoker says. “That’s about the best way to describe us.”

Stoker was a surgical consultant working with orthopedists and selling joint implants. He was in the operating room one day when he felt the first nudge that maybe he was supposed to be doing something else.

“I really felt the Lord calling me to look around my city ” he says. “I’d get up late at night and ride around downtown. I’d see all these homeless people. I watched how they climbed in dumpsters how they waited in the back for restaurants to close so they could get the scraps.”

Soon he was doing more than observing. He “went under the bridge” with sandwiches and soup hanging out with the homeless at night after working all day.

“Seeing people that have been homeless for years lying on a piece of plastic and crying missing children missing parents missing friends missing meals missing showers � you sit and hear that all night it will change your life ” he says.

After four months under the bridge he left his job. He and his wife Lee Anna started First Fruit Ministries in 1998.

“It’s where my destiny and my calling collided and caused a great big explosion in my life ” he says. “Under that bridge standing in the street giving out soup.”

The very nature of homelessness makes it hard to pin down the statistics. The homeless are transient and live in the shadows. It can last for a season or a lifetime. In 2015 a count held on one night at the end of January found 390 homeless in Wilmington. Almost one-fifth were categorized as chronically homeless 109 were victims of domestic violence 90 were considered to have serious mental illness 92 were substance abusers and 62 were under 18.

“Addictions mental illness handicaps of different sorts leave people in situations where they need a little bit of help to get back up ” Stoker says. “They can be in a situation where they have had a bad run of horrible crises and end up sleeping on a park bench or end up in the woods.”

Stoker still takes food under the bridge. Every Wednesday and Sunday staff and volunteers go downtown and seek out the homeless. He also visits them at makeshift camps.

“We serve homeless camps with food and bags of clothes ” he says. “By working in the camps you get to see another level of homelessness. It’s really survival.”

Out of the Pit

Think “homeless woman” and the picture that springs to mind likely includes shabby clothes dirty hair maybe a missing tooth or two. It’s certainly not the young personable girl sitting at the desk of the First Fruit food pantry.

Katie smiles easily and laughs readily as she greets visitors. She could be a college student volunteering for the morning not someone rescued off the streets.

“We have this picture of what homelessness looks like ” says Jenny Griffin director of the Dream Center the ministry’s transitional shelter. “She (Katie) is well put together. If you saw her on the street you would not think she was homeless.”

The homeless come in all ages colors shapes and sizes. But they all have something in common.

“We all came from some sort of pit ” Katie says.

The pit can include prison abusive relationships substance abuse mental illness — anything that makes them subject to homelessness and in need of a helping hand.

The first shovel loads of Katie’s pit were dug when she was growing up in Las Vegas. Her parents abused drugs and alcohol. She entered the foster system. She often ran away and lived on the streets. She became an alcoholic.

She got pregnant then lost custody of her baby. She followed her daughter’s father to Fayetteville North Carolina last year.

Her little girl who’s 3 means everything to her. She needed a way out of the pit if she was ever going to become the mother she wants to be. Katie began looking for help and found First Fruit Ministries.

“They help with a safe place to heal once you come out of all that chaos ” Katie says.

The Dream Center exists to help women like Katie. They stay in the dormitory-style house and program for up to a year. By then they should be employed and ready to become independent.

“The structure here is you should be able to find work and get into housing ” Griffin says.

The center has capacity for 14 women. There’s also a family center for women with children. Each has an individual program to help them work toward the goal of independence.

“I let all of them know what their responsibilities are ” Griffin says. “If we do too much for people they won’t ever get where they want to be. If they do it themselves then they are empowered.”

The steps toward responsibility are called footwork. For Katie it meant finding a job applying for the fire-fighter program at Cape Fear Community College working out volunteering regularly and spending a couple of hours a day in prayer and Bible reading.

“The footwork is getting up and going to work regardless of whether I’m having a good day or a bad day and keeping my relationship with God tight and secure ” she says. “Sometimes I mess up. Sometimes I nail it. I leave the rest in God’s hands. I know it sounds corny but that’s all I can do.”

Tough Love

Yes Griffin admits with a laugh there are a couple of 50-somethings living at the center. But she doesn’t completely retract the girl description.”They act like teenagers ” she says. “I feel like I’m their mom. But they need that. I’m a tough love mom.”

Griffin was a recently divorced 43-year-old single mother when she decided to pursue a college degree in 2009. She graduated from the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s school of social work in May 2015 and immediately began working at First Fruit.

She fills a multifaceted role. She helps steer the women toward jobs advocates to get them on the list for low-income housing enrolls the ones who never graduated from high school in a GED program teaches them how to budget and helps them set goals. She provides counseling and is always ready with a listening ear.

“A lot of them don’t have problem-solving skills ” she says. “Probably homelessness would make that happen put you in a survival mode. So you can’t just say ‘go get a job.’ They don’t know how to make that happen. You really have to take them by the hand to get them jump-started.”

Most start doing the footwork. Others need a nudge gentle or otherwise.

“They get here and start getting comfortable. It’s so much better than out there ” she says. “I’ll tell them ‘You are still in a pit.’ You are homeless. This is a transitional shelter. I say ‘You’re on a step. You’ve got to keep climbing. Take a deep breath and go.’ I have to be real careful. But I do push.”

Working with the homeless can be frustrating. Sometimes it’s discouraging. But she’s always willing to go the extra mile. Or as happened three times over the summer when she took Katie to see her daughter in Fayetteville many extra miles.

“I got to see her but it was rough saying goodbye ” Katie says. “Jenny was there for me. In my hardest moments of this season of my life she’s been there whether it was a phone call or a prayer or picking me up.”

She might be tough at times but Griffin never forgets the love component. That’s what gives the women dignity and self-worth.

“They have a name they have a story ” she says. “Yeah they made some bad choices. But they are people.”

A Solid Foundation

Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowd. Because he deigned to share meals with the outcasts the religious elite of the day accused him of being “a glutton and a drunkard a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

Rick Stoker can relate.

Hanging out with the homeless under the bridge means associating with some unsavory characters. Like the pimp he met one night who demanded beer as the payment for conversation.

The man suspected Stoker was a Bible thumper just looking for a convert and would be scared off by his demands. He was surprised when Stoker called his bluff and showed up with a couple of brews. The pimp ended up drinking them both.

Stoker says a couple of church folks saw him hanging out with the pimp and he was judged for it. But he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“He told me everything I need to know about runaway girls becoming prostitutes and how they get them hooked on drugs ” Stoker says. “With that information we must have intercepted a dozen girls that year and rescued them from sex slavery.”

First Fruit is an unabashedly Gospel-centered Christian ministry dedicated to helping the poor and the homeless to providing hope to proclaiming the message of ultimate hope found through faith in Jesus.

There is a church service every Thursday night after a meal for the homeless at ministry headquarters. It’s nondenominational just like all of the outreach programs.

“I don’t think the poor are the Catholics’ problem or the Presbyterians’ problem or the Methodists’ problem ” he says. “It’s an issue we need to address as Christians as moral people.”

No one who receives help is required to attend services or become Christian. But neither does the staff disguise the faith component.

“They are big on God and Jesus and they let us know that ” Katie says. “The women here obviously we haven’t been too great at working it out by ourselves. They pour that love into us of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. That’s my favorite part of the program honestly.”

Food Without Strings

The line outside the food pantry begins forming a couple of hours before the doors open. Men and women queue up eager to get boxes of bread fruit vegetables meat even hot food.

Lisa is one of them. She’s here on a sunny Tuesday getting food for her family.

“It’s a blessing for a lot of people that are really hungry ” she says.

The food pantry is open on Tuesdays Wednesdays and Saturdays. The food is donated from the Wilmington food bank grocery stores and individuals. There is no means testing. Show up and you get to take a box home.

“There are some of them that come and rip me off and eat my food ” Stoker says. “I understand that. I’ve prayed about that a billion times. But the Lord told me one night ‘Don’t separate the wheat from the tares. That’s my job.’ So I just feed the all.”

Volunteers staff the pantry. Some of them like Russ Miller can relate to the people in line. He fell on hard times after moving from Charlotte to Wilmington and once was one of them.

“When I first came in here and signed up I was crying ” he says. “I said ‘I’ve never done this before.’ This is a difficult transition for a lot of people. I came out here because I needed it. Then I said ‘OK I want to give back because they gave to me.'”

Paul and Maureen Ashley a retired couple in their 70s who moved from Long Island New York to Leland a couple of years ago make the drive across the bridge every week rain or shine summer or winter. They greet the regulars by name.

“We get to know them ” Paul says. “They’re from all walks of life whites Hispanics blacks you name it. They are all grateful. We keep the line going but we talk to everyone. We see some of the same people every week.”

Stoker gladly steps back and lets the volunteers take the lead.

“This ministry belongs to Wilmington ” he says. “These are Wilmington’s poor. You can cuss the panhandlers downtown or see some big handsome guy that won’t work and you have a reason to shake your head. But I’ll show you another 150 that really don’t have the mental capacity to work and another 150 that are so disabled they can’t — a lot of them are veterans. There’s so much more than you can think or see. We’re just looking for a way to help people.”