Help on wheels covers new ground

Leaven photo by Sheila Myers Catholic Charities case manager Cindy Gillespie (left) goes over client Darlana Merritt’s paperwork with her inside the resource bus. Gillispie connected Merritt with rent, utility and food assistance using the printer, scanner and Internet-ready computer on the bus.
Catholic Charities case manager Cindy Gillespie (left) goes over client Darlana Merritt’s paperwork with her inside the resource bus. Gillispie connected Merritt with rent, utility and food assistance using the printer, scanner and Internet-ready computer on the bus.

by Sheila Myers
Special to The Leaven

Atchison — When 24-year-old Darlana Merritt called the Atchison Salvation Army for rental assistance, the agency couldn’t help. The depressed economy has taken a toll on social service agencies and the Salvation Army was out of funds.

But thanks to a partnership between Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and Dallas-based Atmos Energy, Merritt didn’t have to travel far for relief. She found it on the Resource Bus in the Salvation Army parking lot.

The Resource Bus is a Catholic Charities mobile assistance facility that brings case management, food and other essentials to rural communities. The bus enables Catholic Charities to expand its presence in its 21-county service area.

“It’s part of our strategic plan to branch out to the 17 counties where we do not have offices or emergency assistance centers,” said Kim Brabits, Catholic Charities’ emergency assistance director.

The bus will visit a different county every month.

“We try to be strategic so that as many people in rural communities as possible can get to us,” Brabits said.

For Merritt, the 11-passenger gray Ford minibus was a lifesaver, and not only because it provided air-conditioning on a 104-degree day. In less than an hour, case manager Cindy Gillispie connected Merritt with rent, utility and food assistance using the printer, scanner and Internet-ready computer on the bus.

“The whole process has been so easy,” Merritt said.

As a caseworker, Gillispie loves the bus.

“I love to be able to go out to the smaller communities where you know that they are struggling and don’t have a lot of the resources or other agencies to help them,” Gillispie said.

With so many social service offices shut down from lack of funds, clients often have to travel long distances to reach another office that can process their case. But people in dire financial straits are least able to afford the cost of transportation.

So Catholic Charities coordinates with local social service agencies and Catholic churches to schedule appointments for those most in need.

“The need is great, but the funding is very small,” Brabits said. “We use [local resources] to identify what the needs are so we can identify where we can be most helpful.”

The idea for the bus came from Atmos Energy, a natural gas distributor for more than three million customers in 12 states, including Kansas. Atmos and Catholic Charities already enjoyed a warm relationship established while working together on a utility assistance program called “Share the Warmth.”

Operating expenses for the bus are covered by Catholic Charities’ emergency assistance budget. Brabits estimates it will cost about $100,000 a year to operate the bus, far cheaper than establishing a brick-and-mortar presence in every county. But the agency will review lessons learned at the end of the year.

“We’re covering new ground here,” Brabits said.

Since the bus arrived in June, it has made three stops: Topeka, Osawatomie and Atchison.

Brabits and Gillispie were prepared to deal with 11 appointments on this particular day in Atchison. Despite the heat, all 11 showed up, with people looking for assistance with a variety of needs.

“They’re coming to us with a [utility] disconnect and an eviction notice and a need for food,” Brabits said.

Patricia Blacketer, 55, came for help paying a $224 electric bill after receiving a shut-off notice. She needs the air conditioning because she has a respiratory ailment. Blacketer hopes an upcoming move to a one-story house will reduce her utility expenses.

She is doing everything she can to make ends meet, including having a yard sale and applying for food stamp assistance.

“Right now, it seems like I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said.

Gillispie gave Blacketer utility assistance and a $20 gift card to help pay for her medical prescription.

Blacketer’s 28-year-old daughter, Alisa Adams, also sought assistance. Adams is an unemployed single mom with three boys, ages 8, 6 and 4. She needs a job, but her options are limited because she also needs child care.

“I’m getting by, day by day,” Adams said.

When they finished on the bus, Blacketer and Adams stepped inside the Salvation Army building to choose from a selection of food and clothing.

Olathe volunteers Sue Escolani and Barbara Bergman helped Blacketer and Adams check sizes of new children’s socks and underwear. Blacketer tried on a pair of new gym shoes and picked up a package of hoagie rolls for dinner.

Despite the never-ending need, Brabits doesn’t get discouraged. She believes in Catholic Charities’ mission.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” she said. “Most people just need a little extra help one time.”

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