Amid shopping trips, tree-trimming and festive galas, the needs of our neighbors usually seem magnified in a season where our own abundance is as clear as the brisk Fayetteville air. The holidays are an excellent time to contribute time and money and area non-profits are utilizing generous contributions to change lives, year round.
In January of 2014, Frank Pargo ended a seven-year term of service in the Army. Proudly, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He endured trauma and watched helplessly as friends died in battle. Now suffering from PTSD and severe depression, he lost his job. “With my conditions, I can’t really be around a lot of people” he said quietly.
By August of 2014, Frank and his wife of seven years were facing late fees on utility bills and eviction from their home.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said the husband and father of three young children. “I told my counselor at the VA that I didn’t have enough money to buy food for my family. She sent me down the road to Operation Blessing.”
Peggy Middleton, who has served as executive director of Operation Blessing since 2008, confirms that Frank’s story isn’t uncommon.
Operation Blessing is in their 32nd year of serving the Fayetteville community. Founded in 1982 by Sonny Floyd, it is a place for Fayetteville residents to seek help when suffering from a lack of basic human needs.
To families like Frank’s, they offer a safety net of services from limited financial assistance to clothing. For mothers-to-be, they offer a Crisis Pregnancy Center. “We educate women,” said Middleton. “We show them that abortion isn’t their only choice.” In 2013, they helped more than 11,000 people in Fayetteville area.
If an individual or family qualifies, they may receive financial assistance once per year, clothing once every six months, and unlimited access to educational services and connection with area resources. “We don’t enable,” said Middleton, “We empower.”
Hosting two large fundraisers each year – a golf tournament in the spring and an annual banquet in November – Operation Blessing relies solely on community support to offer their services.
With more than 3000 volunteer hours last year, Operation Blessing saved $30,000 in potential administrative expenses to, instead, contribute to the community. “We are good stewards of donations and also the people who come to us. We respect them. It is an honor to serve any other human being,” said Middleton.
Respect is exactly what Frank needed. With help from Operation Blessing, Frank was able to feed his family of five and avoid eviction. “Honestly, we went there just for food. We were experiencing things we’ve never experienced. After we told our story, these angels – I call them our angels – asked, ‘what else can we do for y’all?’ The gates were open. We are so grateful we met them.”
With the aid of a different non-profit, Hope for Warriors, Frank’s family moved back to their hometown of Chicago to attend school, but he is staying in Fayetteville for a few more months to receive treatment at the VA and to complete his apartment lease. He stops by Operation Blessing frequently, just to say ‘hello and thank you’ or with donations of clothing. After one of the most trying years of his life, a fiercely humble and proud Frank said, “Give back. I don’t care if it’s a penny, or a dollar or socks. The blessings will come back around to you.”
This winter, Operation Blessing’s most pressing need will be monetary giving that will go toward utility bills, and food. “I’m praying we will be food secure,” worried Middleton. “Churches and organizations will do their best, but in the winter months, many people in Fayetteville choose between paying bills and buying food.”
Operation Blessing’s annual banquet will be held at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church on November 6th. Single tickets are $60 and a table of 8 is $400.
Operation Blessing is located at 1337 Ramsey Street. They welcome facility tours, volunteers and of course, contributions.
Let it Shine Celebrations
In May of 2013, Lea Johnson discovered how she could serve the Lord and give back to her community. After witnessing the plight of neglected and abused children through many years of volunteer work with CASA: Court Appointed Special Advocates, Lea was distractedly flipping through a People Magazine one day when she saw a feature on a charity that focused on birthday parties for homeless children.
“I’ve never felt like that, before. The path was clear, and believe me, I’ve had some harebrained ideas,” Lea said of the call to create a similar charity benefiting Fayetteville-area homeless children. “In the past, I mainly concentrated on helping military families and children. I had never sought to help the homeless, but with my previous volunteer experience, it is as if God prepared me for this,” she said.
Partnering with Snyder Memorial Baptist Church and Cumberland Interfaith Hospitality Networks, Lea and the Let It Shine team throw birthday parties each month at the YMCA on Bragg Boulevard.
While Lea’s initial vision involved a cake and a simple present, Let it Shine has become so much more than that: “a piece of restoration for a family,” she said.
Let It Shine secures the location, the gifts, a photographer and the food, but they seek detailed input and help from the parents or caretakers of the featured “birthday stars.” The parties are so personalized that upon entering the birthday room, the child knows the party is just for them.
“A lot of families feel like they have failed their children,” Lea said of the disposition she sometimes encounters when planning parties with parents. It is difficult for them to accept their child’s gratitude, so she and her team ensure that the children know the party and the gifts are from their parents. “When a child says ‘thank you,’ we tell the parents to own it, enjoy it, and say, ‘you’re welcome!’”
Lea can recount stories of tearfully thankful 9-year-olds who have been given bicycles, equally thankful parents, and hesitant 13-year-olds that, after opening presents, say the words on which she built her mission, “Momma! You know me so well! This is exactly what I wanted!”
There are many ways to get involved with Let It Shine. Groups and individuals can sponsor a party. After donated pizza from Brooklyn Pizzeria and a discounted venue at the YMCA on Bragg Boulevard, sponsors need only purchase gifts, decorations, activities, photography and a cake. Combined, sponsorship costs about $200, and while Let it Shine will gladly take monetary donations and throw the party themselves; Lea encourages all sponsors to stay and help with the party. “There is no way to explain it. You have to see it happen,” Lea said of the bonding and restoration that occurs both during and after parties.
Lea is an Army wife. She knows her family might not be in the area forever, but she has a team of volunteers whose passion will forward the mission of Let It Shine in Fayetteville. Of her vision for the future, Lea smiled, “What if Let It Shine is meant to be in all the Interfaith Hospitality Networks?”
Donate to Let It Shine via check, made out to Snyder Memorial Baptist Church with Let it Shine in the memo area. Read more about Let It Shine on their Facebook page, Let It Shine Celebrations.
The Fayetteville Dream Center
A handsome young man connects with a beautiful young girl, maybe as young as 12 or 13, on Instagram or Facebook. “Meet me at a party,” he pleaded. “You’re so beautiful. Would you like to model? I’m having auditions!” Or to the girl that seems strapped for cash, he said promisingly, “I’ve got a job for you. Deliver these cellphones and I’ll pa y you.”
When the girl finally accepts his offer, she’s whisked away...into a nightmare of forced, drugged sex. She never sees a dollar, only endless threats: “You see these pictures of you? I’ll show them to your youth group at church.” If that doesn’t work, her captor said, “I’ll kill you if you leave.”
That’s all it takes, in this high-tech society, for girls to become victims in ever-growing human trafficking rings in the United States. Fayetteville residents may be surprised to know it’s happening to our girls, too.
“It all started with drugs. It’s pretty normal for everyone at my high school to be smoking pot. I got talked into other things at parties and was then offered a modeling job by a ‘photographer.’ The only place my photos were posted were online - for sale. I had no idea until he took me to a hotel room, with a gun, and told me I had to make $2,000 before I could go,” said a 17-year-old trafficked victim from a local high school.
After the Special Victims Unit rescues a victim, Kelly Twedell, executive director of The Fayetteville Dream Center, is there to help.
“I sit with her. I eat with her. I go to court with her. I am her advocate,” said Twedell.
After contacting a guardian, the department of social services or the Child Advocacy Center, Twedell facilitates a long healing process, which begins with enrolling the women in a restoration program in Louisiana, Alabama, or even Charlotte, where victims go to receive treatment and further their education. The ultimate goal is for victims to be confidently integrated back into society. The Dream Center pays for them to get to the restoration centers. Location is critical to escape former captors, as Twedell noted, “We hear from survivors that it’s better to move far away, or even out of state.”
Recently, Twedell was called in to help a 16-year-old who had just been rescued. As they drove toward the courthouse, the girl said, defeated, “Ms. Kelly, I shouldn’t be dealing with this right now. I should be picking out a prom dress. I’ll never have that life.”
In partnership with Five Sparrows, a human-traffic-fighting non-profit founded by Twedell’s husband, the police, sheriff and district attorney, there is reason to be optimistic about local outcomes. In August, Mayor Nat Robertson and Chief Harold Medlock made a proclamation that human trafficking will not be tolerated in Fayetteville. “There must be law, healing advocates and prosecution for captors,” said Twedell.
As a first line of defense at home, there are warning signs of which parents of middle and high schoolers should be aware. Does your daughter carry around a hotel key? Can she not stay awake? Is she missing class? Does she suddenly own things she can’t afford, like an expensive phone or purse?
The Dream Center also focuses on aid to the homeless, impoverished and domestically abused. In their downtown location across from Festival Park, they mobilize community volunteers and hold classes and counseling for the needy. “We can still show God’s love – no strings attached - in a building that’s not a church,” said Twedell, who also stocks a clothes closet for adults, children and infant care and collects household goods for women and families who leave everything behind to escape domestic violence.
“I used to live in a four bedroom home in a nice neighborhood. I never thought I’d find myself in a shelter, but I could not let my children watch me endure the violence any longer, and think it was normal,” said a local mother of three, who reached out to The Dream Center.
To learn more about The Fayetteville Dream Center, follow them on Twitter – @Fay_DreamCenter – or visit their website, www.fayettevilledreamcenter.org, for more on volunteering and contributing.