Vying for Virginians: Grace Network fights generational poverty through community
Volunteers of all ages putting together food donations.
It’s a story that can be found in every nook and cranny of the United States; as industries leave, taking their factories with them, jobs are lost, and entire communities can be plunged into devastating poverty virtually overnight. In Martinsville, Virginia, Grace Network is fighting back.
Founded 15 years ago, Grace Network is a diverse coalition of faith-based organizations and local businesses banding together to serve people in crisis in Henry County, Virginia, and fight generational poverty through community-building teamwork.
On the heels of textile manufacturers deserting the area in the ’80s and ‘90s, people looked to their churches during the crushing time, not only for hope but also for help. Like much of the South, Henry County is laden with churches, but they all found themselves ill-equipped to effectively handle the needs of their communities alone.
In 2005, with the assistance of a United Way grant, these local institutions came together to amplify their impact by pooling their resources, creating Grace Network.
From the very beginning, they set out on a mission to focus on aiding those in crisis with their essential life needs, housing, food and utilities. “When it [Grace Network] actually got developed, they had to determine what exactly was going to be the mission,” says Tracy Hinchcliff, Executive Director. “What are we going to help with as Grace Network? You can’t be everything to everybody.”
The unfortunate and all-too-common story shared amongst many clients they serve, is of a low-income family that lives paycheck to paycheck, and encounters an unexpected bill. The car breaks down, the dog gets sick, a parent gets cancer, someone loses their job, and it puts them at risk to lose what little they may have. “Their lives are best described as a spider web. A spider web is extremely delicate, and has all these little strings that hold it together. If you were to pinch out a string, the whole thing will cave in, in just a heartbeat,” says Hinchcliff. Many of these individuals are just trying to make it to the end of each day with their children fed and the lights still on. When poverty is generational, parents are also unable to teach their children how to live beyond each day, and the cycle continues.
Grace Network prides itself on a process that sets them apart from other services. Prior to the disruption of COVID-19, they were a walk-in, first-come-first-served service. Though they have temporarily made the switch to appointments only, they still take the time to thoroughly interview each client and begin building a deep relationship with them. Throughout their interview process, they try to get to the heart of the crisis. What happened in your life? What caused your crisis? What crisis are you going through? How can we help, and what steps are you taking to help yourself? By building a strong relationship and teamwork with their clients, they’re able to tackle more than just making sure the rent is paid; they’re beginning the fight against the cycle of poverty.
Because Grace Network takes the time to get to know each individual, they are also able to act as a referral service and connect them with other local organizations to access things like GED programs, senior assistance, and job training and placement. “[Our process] allows someone to take responsibility for their own lives, in partnership with someone that can help them,” says Hinchcliff. “What good is Christian charity if you don’t allow people to keep the dignity that they had when they walked through the door?” This barrier-breaking work helps their clients begin to create a life for themselves where they can thrive, instead of just survive.
Today, Grace Network comprises more than 125 churches and a plethora of local businesses and serves an average of 1,400 households that includes approximately 900 children. They are well known throughout the State of Virginia, but only serve residents of Henry County.
Grace Network was founded in unity, a badge of honor they proudly carry with them today. They strive to assist other organizations with statistics, advice, or any needs they may have in their own mission to serve Henry County. With their years of service, they have garnered an excellent reputation for sound advice and support in the community. Hinchcliff started off as a volunteer with Grace Network. After falling in love with the work, the mission and the community, she took on the opportunity to serve as Executive Director.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a significant gap in donations for Grace Network, as churches and faith communities had no choice but to close their doors temporarily. The donations they received, and therefore the services they were able to provide, were reduced by 25% from March 2020 to December 2020. Since many of their volunteer staff are retirees, they fell into the most vulnerable group and have been in self-quarantine, creating a volunteer gap as well. Luckily in 2021, they are slowly but surely seeing donations begin to climb back toward pre-pandemic levels, as they strive to find the best way to continue serving their clients and protecting their volunteers.
A retired volunteer stocks shelves in the food pantry.
As a faith-based organization, Grace Network rarely applies for government grants and are mostly funded by the community, “It’s just folks taking care of folks, right here in the local community,” Hinchcliff says.
Because they know every dollar counts, they are incredibly cost-conscious in all of their services. 80-85% of every donation they receive goes directly to providing client services. They are overseen by a 15-member board and currently only retain one full-time employee, the Executive Director, and a part-time bookkeeper. They are able to fulfill their mission and provide services through the generosity of the volunteers that make up the rest of the non-profit.
Grace Network’s Annual Pumpkin Patch is their biggest fundraiser of the year.
Tragedy can strike anyone, and Grace Network wants to be there when it does. As they await reopening as a walk-in service, they persevere with their mission to aid those in crisis while fighting the systemic barriers of poverty, and working to prevent the continuation of generational poverty in Martinsville-Henry County into the future. Grace Network strives to give short-term assistance to help find long-term solutions. “Working together is not just a cliche here, it is a way of life,” adds Hinchcliff.
Learn more about Grace Network of Martinsville-Henry County here: http://www.gracenetworkmhc.org/index.cfm
Donate to Grace Network of Martinsville-Henry County here: https://my.gobluefire.com/app/giving/halopays-2634
Visit Grace Network of Martinsville-Henry County on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/GraceNetworkMHC/