Cooperative of churches on Johns, Wadmalaw islands aids those in need one rung at a time
By Sybil Fix
Special to The Post and Courier
Dec 4 2015
The stories, as if pulled from a catalog of lives gone amiss, are always distressing:
The veteran of a recent war whose legs were blown off and whose prosthetics were stolen. He needed housing, and so much more.
Vets with records bungled by a mishap; vets with addiction problems who want to get sober and work.
Elderly women whose homes are in disheartening disrepair but don’t have money to call anyone for help. People who need to work, and want to work, but have no transportation and have given up. People who don’t know how to qualify for food stamps. People who don’t speak English and don’t know how to get a picture ID or look for work. People with literacy problems that cut them off from the world. People who get evicted and don’t know where to go or how to sort through the fallout.
People with violent, abusive lives, and people filled with des-pair.
People whose lives, through a crunching domino effect, have plummeted so far from normalcy that they have stopped imagining a way back. People whose existence feels so isolated that they cannot envision there might be help for them.
Yet, often help is available — if only they know where to look or how to start.
A recently formed cooperative of churches on Johns and Wadmalaw islands is harnessing the power of faith-based, socially driven ministry to bring practical, long-lasting change to the lives of the needy and poor in their communities, some of the poorest in the country. Filling a void in an area with a dearth of services, their new organization, Next Steps, is reaching out to help those in need of food, shelter, housing and job counseling, addiction counseling and so much more, sometimes just with simple directions and encouragement on where or how to go seek help.
“People’s needs range from A to Z. Sometimes they say one thing and after a meeting we discover there is really so much more,” said Beth Condit, after threading together the harrowing list of needs she has encountered or heard of as Next Steps’ executive director. “Some of the situations are absolutely crazy. … But we try to help by setting them on the next track to where they need to go to solve their problem.”
Key words — “to solve their problem.” “It’s not a handout. It’s a hand up,” said Condit, reciting a basic tenet of the program.
“We deal with people in abject poverty who are in a ditch,” said Ed Dyckman, who spearheaded the birth of Next Steps Johns Island. “We put a ladder in the ditch and every rung is a step out of the ditch.”
New kind of ministry
Dyckman, a retired program management specialist for the Pentagon who relocated to the Lowcountry, modeled the Next Steps concept on the Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington’s program by the same name. A model of ministry that welds the support of the church and the power of the individual to take aid beyond emergency need, the concept appealed to him for helping people while empowering them to help themselves.
“You love people where they are, but you don’t want them to be dependent there,” Dyckman said, mentioning that the lives of the poor are convulsed by constant repetitive crisis. “You want to help them not have those anymore.”
Dyckman had been a volunteer Lazarus minister at his church in the Washington, D.C., area, and had served as the diocese’s lay chairman of the department of social ministries. After he retired, he was ordained as a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina and he set out to establish an infrastructure for the development of Next Steps on Johns and Wadmalaw islands, whose dense high-poverty rates and related problems he had read about.
After much research into the Next Steps model, and with the help of church leaders on the islands, he established a cooperative of churches whose parishioners were interested in participating as mentors to create a net of help for residents in need.
Next Steps’ mission is best summed up on its website: “to serve as a Christ-centered, all-volunteer ministry … to inspire and equip members of cooperative churches to work together to help people in poverty in their community make positive changes in their lives.”
This happens in three ways, the website says: emotionally, by listening to their hopes and fears; physically, by linking them to employment and social resources; and spiritually, “by sharing with them the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Next Steps requires its beneficiaries — participants, they are called — to engage in their own renewal. As Condit describes the process, they identify their long-term needs and goals, which is a critical step; often they help vet any root problems, such as substance abuse; they help identify the steps to be taken to reach their goals; and, they must offer up their own participation in receiving the help Next Steps locates for them. The process of reaching the goal might take many steps and years.
“We do what we can to help people, but with the caveat that they need to help themselves,” said Linda Mecchi, Next Steps’ program director, a former teacher who retired to Seabrook. “Mostly what we do is arrange for people to get help … and they go out there and they come back having understood that they can deal with the world. Often they just don’t know what steps to take.”
Right now, the Next Steps Johns Island chapter, which began working in April, has 61 active clients — whose anonymity the organization protects fiercely — and has helped 15 solve their problem — for good, hopefully. In many cases, though, the process is just at the start, Condit said.
First step first
Getting help through Next Steps begins with a meeting between mentors and the person in need, who articulates a goal.
“It can be getting a car or a new heater, or a job, but most often it is putting food on the table, or getting a GED, and we help them get there step by step,” Condit said. Quickly she resumes her list. “Their heater is broken, or they are homeless … but on Johns Island, Wadmalaw, and Red Top, often getting food is their goal. They need food.
“People don’t realize the poverty out in this area,” she said. “When they run up and down Main Road they don’t realize. They think there is so much wealth out here … but take one of the side roads and you’d be shocked. There is so much poverty you just don’t see.”
Often there is more than one need, an interconnected layering of problems complex and delicate to sort through. Sometimes, Condit said, there is an addiction problem; sometimes an abusive relationship that prevents a woman from leaving or advancing.
A widespread need on Wadmalaw and Johns islands is lack of access to technology; another is lack of transportation. “People can’t get to work, they can’t get to the store. … It’s incredible what people go through just to get somewhere, and it’s no wonder some people give up,” Condit said.
Next Steps is trying to arrange passes with Link and centralized pickup and delivery locations to facilitate ways on and off the islands; some kind of Uber-like service or a community billboard for rides also are being considered, Mecchi said.
The next step might be a jobs list, for example, or a small loan to renew an expired professional license that will enable employment, said Mecchi. Or clothes to wear to work. Or repairs to an old home, whose leaks or holes threaten their safety.
Sometimes people come back repeatedly as their lives advance and one problem is fixed only to reveal another —though one constant remains: the commitment to make lasting changes toward a better life.
Through it, Mecchi said, “these people become like family to us.”
“It’s a long-term relationship that might not have ever started,” said Dyckman. “It’s transforming for the participants as it is for the volunteers.”
But the work has just begun. Next Steps, which is funded through grants and private donations, is in need of everything from office supplies to volunteers who can serve in intake, mentoring, fundraising, greeting, reception, training and development, outreach and recruitment and information technology. Also needed are Spanish-speaking volunteers. Mentors are required to go through special training.
Affiliation with a church is not a requirement but, said Mecchi, all sessions with participants begin and end with prayer, and volunteers with the organization must be at ease with that.
“The faith here is real. This work requires faith because some of what we see is very distressing. Without faith to sustain us, I doubt we would last very long at helping these people,” Mecchi said.
Leaders of Next Steps hope this kind of ministry fosters as much unity among the churches and in the community as it does between Next Steps volunteers and program participants. Part of that glue comes from the buy-in of the participants themselves who, by bettering their lives, are able to contribute to their own communities.
“We are trying to bring together the community,” Mecchi said. “The churches are the motivational force, but we are all people of faith.”
Meanwhile, Dyckman is intent on opening Next Steps chapters throughout South Carolina.
One step at a time, he said.
To contact the Johns Island/Wadmalaw Island/Red Top Next Steps call 843-810-1036, or email firstname.lastname@example.org