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Shelter and help for the hungry in the midst of Middletown's growth

Aug 24, 2015 04:43PM ● Published by Steven Hoffman

On the ever-expanding western edge of Middletown, there's a lifeline for people who aren't sharing in the economic boom.
The sign in the warehouse window identifies the Agape Storehouse Community Basket, but it's through the open garage door that you'll find the conveyor belt and the stacks of critically needed food that's distributed by volunteers. Standing in her unglamorous office in the warehouse, executive director Zelda Carter beamed when talking about the families who line up at the food pantry to collect their allotment of supplies. 
“Families get food weekly or bi-weekly,” Carter said. “This is a 4,000-square-foot food pantry. It's a non-profit, nobody's paid. We can serve up to 3,000 people a month. About 150 families might come each week.”
Donated food is collected from Wal-Mart, Super G and Acme Markets six days a week. There's a well-worn van in the parking lot with 400,000 miles on it, and a 2014 van inside that's used to pick up the donated food and bring it to the distribution point. “Food distribution is Monday, Wednesday and Saturday,” Carter said. “Every couple of days, there's food coming in or going out.”
There are freezers stocked with frozen foods, as well as deli items, canned goods and boxed food stacked in the warehouse. One walk-in refrigerator/freezer is a major new addition. “Our utility bill had been $1,600 a month” to power the dozen or so freezers and coolers that had been used, Carter explained. “We've had this for three months now, and it's saving electric. We were able to unplug 18 appliances and got $300 savings each month,” she said. 
The food pantry fills a critical need in the region. “Last year, there were 88 homeless students in Middletown alone,” Carter said. “I live off of Route 299 on a corner property. My husband would come out to work at five o'clock in the morning, and there was a family sleeping in their car. We found out they were homeless. If we can't put someone up in our housing, we will find housing or a shelter for them in Dover or Wilmington, or put them up in a hotel for a week until they can get things done.”
The food pantry is just one part of what she and her husband Anthony are accomplishing each day.
“I'm here five days a week,” Carter said. “I'm a pastor and professor, and my husband is too.” Their church, Christ Servants Mission, is tied into the Power 4-U Community Center, as well as Love Inc., and a furniture rescue program, five food pantries, a soup kitchen and Family Help, Inc., Transitional Housing.
Carter has always been involved in helping others. “My mother, Rosa Fountain, started me when I was 9,” she said. “My mother became ill when I was in my 20s, so from then to now I've been doing this. I'm almost 62 now. It all stemmed from my mom in the Philadelphia area. She was originally from downstate Delaware, where she would feed migrants on the farms.
“This is just what I do,” Carter said. “I was trained by my mother. She was always taking some family into our home. She had eight children, but she was always taking in the neighbor kids, feeding them, giving them clothes, giving them a place to stay. I've got my mother's spirit.”
Working with families who live below the poverty line, families who are homeless, and those facing a sudden crisis has only expanded Carter's desire to help others. She will arrange emergency shelter for those at risk of homelessness, she answers her phone after hours, and “we don't turn anybody down,” she said. “We're the only place between Dover and Wilmington where families can get help.”
Family Help, Inc., has been in operation for five years, she said. Before that, the Power 4-U Community Center opened in 1998. Through the years, Carter has developed a keen eye for people who are just using the system, those who are on drugs, and those who refuse to better themselves. But it's the families who turn themselves around who keep Carter coming back, day after day.
As part of the services offered by the network of organizations, “we do budget counseling, teach families how to keep their homes safe, the families help keep the grounds clean, we get them parenting classes, GED classes at Middletown High School, we help them clean their credit up so they can get affordable housing of their own,” Carter said.
Four families have since bought their own cars, which made a critical difference in finding employment. “We had been taking clients to job interviews,” Carter said, which ate into the time she could spend helping others. “There's only one of me. I need 48 hours in a day,” she said, laughing, as the phone in the food pantry office rang.
There are about 200 volunteers, from the age of 18 to 93, who help run the various programs, but the main staff is only about 20 volunteers, Carter said.
She runs a lean operation, and Carter hates wasting any resources. Food that is expired or spoiled goes to local farmers, who use it as animal feed. “No food goes to waste,” she said.
Over on Lake Street in Middletown, Carter proudly showed off a renovated apartment building where four families at a time can get transitional housing while they get back on their feet. Families pay 30 percent of whatever their annual income might be. New bedrooms were added recently, allowing larger families to give children their own rooms. The apartments come complete with donated furniture that's modern and clean, along with dishes, toiletries, sheets and towels. Since opening five years ago, Family Help Transitional Housing has hosted 20 families, Carter said, and only two families failed to succeed and move on.
“One client moved in, and in three months we cleaned up her credit, she got a promotion at her job, and moved into her own apartment. It's only been a year and she's moving out into her own townhouse,” Carter said, smiling. “We're now working with our 21st family.”
One of Carter's mottoes is “Family Help is not a handout, it's a hand up. We're not here to pacify you,” she said. “We're here to make you self-sufficient. That's our number-one goal.”
While in the transitional housing, families contribute to a savings fund, into which they give $100 to $300 every month. At the end of the year, if they stay that long, they get that savings back to move into a permanent home.
Carter's organizations have deep roots in the community that go beyond the apartment building they purchased and renovated on a street formerly known for drug sales and crime. Carter credits the Rotary, Lions Club and local churches for donating materials, know-how and labor to do all the painting, plumbing and construction on the apartments.
“Women from church reupholstered some of the furniture and decorated,” she said. “Churches donate dishes and pots; Walmart gives appliances and beds. Families can get clothing donated through Christ Servants Mission.” When families get back on course, they are given furniture to take with them to their new homes. The families are tracked after they leave to make sure they succeed, and they can always come back for further assistance if necessary.
As a pastor, Carter keeps faith in the picture, but there's no pressure on families who accept help.
“At the food pantry, before we give out the food, we start with a prayer,” Carter said. “I say, 'Teamwork makes the dream work! Now let's feed God's sheep!'”
The apartments on East Lake Street are well maintained, and Carter said families are carefully screened and given drug tests and criminal background checks before they are admitted. “This is not a shelter,” she said. “It's a transitional home. We do inspections to make sure the apartments are kept clean.”

Carter cited a side benefit of the food pantry as well. “Since we opened the pantry, shoplifting has gone down at Wal-Mart,” she said. Families who previously resorted to theft now know they can get critical supplies from Carter's various organizations.
During a tour of the apartments, Irv Brockson arrived and Carter hugged him in greeting. Brockson is the founder of Family Help, now the president, and said, “The good Lord laid it on my heart many years ago that somebody's got to help these people. I tried to get this thing going for years and I was scared to death, to be honest with you. I knew I was not the one to run it.”

Carter added, “He came to me with his idea and I gave him a whole program that I was getting ready to run anyhow, and I said it was workable. We tried to get in several places, it took two years to get it going, but once we found this building and got everything going, 21 families later, here we are.”

Brockson credited financial support from New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, Tom Gordon and the mayor and council of Middletown. “Without them, we'd still be dreaming,” he said.
Brockson was the chairman of the Big Ball Marathon fundraiser, and set $40,000 aside from those proceeds for the purchase of the apartments. When he joined the Rotary, he raised more than $6,000 that also went into the pot. Then he found Dr. Carter.
“Even before we came together, Irv and I and my husband had already been putting up families in our homes,” Carter said. “That was a no-no, but we did it because we had compassion.”
“It's not easy,” Brockson said. “You've got people in need and you want to help them all, but they're not all helpable. There are users out there. But Dr. Carter can see through them.”
The record of success speaks for itself. “East Lake Street used to be the drug capital of Middletown, and it's changed a lot,” Brockson said. “When we show tenants the homes, they're amazed. They don't expect anything this nice.”
At 78, Brockson said, “I'm still learning,” and he only wishes that someone younger could take over. “I believe in teamwork,” he said. “Sometimes I ask, 'Lord, why did you pick me?' But I feel that with God's help, you can do anything.”
Carter added, “It's great to see the families come in, and once they get that key in their door, you can see their smiles.”
For more information about services or volunteering, visit www.agapestorehouse.net.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email  jchambless@chestercounty.com.

 


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