As pastor of Ledford’s Chapel United Methodist Church, the Rev. Jackie Sellers has been involved in Matt’s Ministry from the beginning. But even he marvels at how this grassroots effort has grown.
Based in the rural mountains of western North Carolina, the program offers food bags for children, food delivery to seniors, a food pantry for neighbors in need – and free books for preschoolers and their parents. After starting in the small congregation of Ledford’s Chapel in Hayesville, it now includes eight churches across Clay County.
A grant from The Duke Endowment is helping Matt’s Ministry expand further, serving more families and involving more volunteers.
“As soon as we grew into one thing, we’d see another need and find a way to respond to that,” Sellers says. “We had no idea how big this was going to get.”
P, B & J
The ministry began in late spring 2013 after a church member voiced concern about children going without adequate meals during long summer breaks from school. She wondered if Ledford’s Chapel could help.
“If we have 50 in the pews on a Sunday, we’re doing well,” Sellers says. “But I looked at all those wonderful people and I thought I would be a poor steward of what God had given me if I didn’t encourage them to do something.”
“We started talking about supplying peanut butter and jelly and a loaf of bread to kids on the weekends,” says Rick Casey, a lay leader. “It’s not that we hadn’t reached out to people in the community before, but we were ready for a much more organized effort.”
The congregation gathered information about hunger in the area and met with leaders of local programs. The church teamed with Manna, a food bank in Asheville, and began delivering food packs that summer. Volunteers thought 25 packs could be manageable; they did more than 100 in the first week.
The ministry grew as more needs emerged. Volunteers turned the fellowship hall into a makeshift food pantry, commandeering spare space for donations. They even filled the choir loft with groceries.
To help seniors and shut-ins, they launched a food delivery program. They also joined the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program that mails a free book each month to preschoolers across the county.
Before long, other Hayesville denominations – Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, Assemblies of God – began supporting the effort through money and volunteers.
They named the ministry after Matt Butler, a member of Ledford’s Chapel who had died the previous fall at age 23. Beloved by the community, Matt had touched many lives in his short life.
“To give you an idea of what this area thought of him, the school system shut down the day of his funeral,” Sellers says. “I told everyone, ‘If this food ministry is successful, we’ll name it after Matt.’ We wanted to wait until we were sure it was going to work before we put his name to it, and we figured people would want to make it successful if they knew it was going to honor him.”
In a region challenged by poverty and food insecurity, Matt’s Ministry would offer help and hope.
Growing Stronger Together
Based on economic well-being, Clay is one of North Carolina’s 40 most distressed counties. The unemployment rate sits at 5.6 percent; 24 percent of people live below the poverty level. Thirty percent of children are food insecure, which means they don’t have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. More than 70 percent of children receive free or reduced-price meals at school. Literacy is another concern, with only 40 percent of third graders reading proficiently.
Organizers didn’t let obstacles overwhelm them. “It reminded me of the time my friend got our truck stuck in the mud and someone said, ‘We’ll never push that out,’” Sellers says. “But my friend said, ‘We’ve got the advantage. We have to.’”
The churches, the volunteers, the support – “things like that just don’t happen without God’s hand,” says Matt’s mother, Maggie Butler. “We never asked, ‘Can we do it?’ We just said, ‘Oh yes we can.’”
Most weeks, two dozen people from eight congregations pitch in to help. The food pantry – now in a new building on property owned by Ledford’s Chapel – serves 115 families in an average week. Sixty people receive meal deliveries. More than 150 food bags are sent home with children; another 76 food boxes are distributed to homes. Through the Imagination Library program, 400 children receive books each month.
The grant from The Duke Endowment to Ledford’s Chapel will help the library service include more children, and increase meal delivery to seniors. It will also help buy and distribute more fresh produce, and allow additional volunteers to join the effort.
On a recent Friday, a small group works in the food pantry, unpacking boxes and organizing food. Cans of vegetables, boxes of cereal and bags of rice fill the metal shelves. A table holds bags of bread.
When the doors open for clients in the morning, Rick Casey’s wife, Barbara, will be stationed at her usual spot. A registered nurse, she wakes at 7 a.m. every Saturday determined to volunteer, despite driving home late on Fridays from her hospital 125 miles away. This is more important to her than staying in bed.
Maggie Butler also volunteers faithfully, grateful for the difference the ministry makes – and the memories it helps her hold close.
“No one should ever have to lose their child,” she says. “But we feel fortunate to have this fill our lives after losing Matt.”
Find more information about Matt’s Ministry.
Kristen R. Richardson-Frick