At least two supporters think they found treasure in NETworX.
Bud Deck, a consummate volunteer and leader said when he learned about the empowerment program, one of his first thoughts was, "This is just what I've been looking for."
When the Rev. In-Yong Lee attended a day long training in Hickory, she reacted with, "This is just what I've been looking for." Lee is the recently appointed minister at Rutherfordton's First United Methodist Church.
Now in its third year, the local program of teaching, networking and mutual encouragement is a long way from a hot meal and a place to sleep for people in poverty.
NETworX looks to change the culture of generational poverty that sometimes makes people believe they have no choices.
Middle class and rich folks volunteer to become what the program calls "allies." The alliance includes weekly meetings of encouragement and friendship.
"It's amazing to watch people come around people in need," Sandra Turner, the group's director said. As she spoke those words, she used a circling of her hands to demonstrate the support. It looked like she was gathering in an invisible group hug.
While hot meals are part of the appeal on Monday nights at Rutherfordton's First United Methodist Church, what comes after supper is classes, conversation, encouragement, curriculum aimed at teaching there is another way.
The impoverished folks who sign up for the program are often the working poor, which takes off the table the judgments of those who think they don't work.
"So many people say poor people need to work harder. Many of these folks don't do anything but work. It's just hard to pay your bills on minimum wage, even working two or three jobs," Turner said.
Deck said the first time he was exposed to the program, "I couldn't understand what they were talking about. But the more I listened I learned this is exactly what I've been looking for."
"It's certainly not just about finances," Turner said. "We have to look at the whole picture, emotional needs, spiritual needs."
"And nutritional needs," Deck added.
"Yes," Turner said. "We've had cooking classes."
She gave the example of a single mom who was paying $35 a night for a motel room. She was making $11.50 an hour, but after paying for food and putting gas in her car, she just wasn't making it.
Among the 50 "champions" the program has worked with some participants have moved from homelessness to public housing to private apartments. Others have moved from third shift jobs to better first shift jobs closer to home and better suited to children's schedules.
"This story just blows my mind," Turner recalled. "We were working with a single mom who reunited with her husband. She came to see me and said she had a real challenge at work. In a new position, she had to pick benefits. She had never done that before. She was working a job that offered benefits for the first time in her life. She was in her 40's and had never worked a job with benefits? I've never worked a job that didn't have benefits."
Poverty paints people into corners that rich and middle class people cannot imagine.
Turner had high praise for one of the programs volunteers, Malanie Price.
"She worked with a single mom who was getting up at four in the morning to work a fast food job," Turner said. "Malanie helped her find a better job in fast food then to an even better job and she now has a job coach at Vocational Rehabilitation. When she started with us, she wouldn't even make eye contact. If she spoke at all, she looked at the floor. Malanie deserves a lot of credit for that," Turner said.
Malanie Price says she gets more out of the program than anybody she may have helped. Deck said the same thing. In fact, volunteers often say that. From youth league coaches to Scout leaders to Sunday School teachers and soup kitchen cooks, it is a constant refrain. Volunteers get more out of volunteering than those they serve.
Potential volunteers or participants can call 828-287-3704 to learn more.
But why? What's the big idea?
NETworX changes the way people in poverty see, the words they hear, their body language, their way of thinking about what is possible in life.
An old wise saying goes, "Give people a fish and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime." NETworX is a weekly meeting among friends who give and take fishing lessons. It is learning to fish for better jobs, schooling, housing, a better spot in life, more opportunities.
There are programs for the children, too. And what better way to outfox the foxes of poverty than teach winning ways to the next generation?
A single mom with seven children came into the program after being invited to an Easter Egg hunt.
"That's all it took. It was Easter and they were at the Welcome Table, (the Monday night meal served at First Methodist Rutherfordton,) Linda Jeanne Harrill, one of our volunteers, said, 'Why not invite them?' to the Easter Egg Hunt. We did and they've been with us ever since."
There are issues.
Two of the teens in the family did some damage to their public housing. The local authorities wanted to evict the mother and seven children. Turner was able to meet with all parties and negotiate a solution that did not involve eviction. It's not easy, but it works.
"They're not homeless," Turner said.
She said for the most part the seven children are very well behaved, however she did tell one funny story about working with the teen boys. One Monday night one of the boys was missing at the Welcome Table. Turner asked where he was. His teen brother said he was at football practice. When Turner asked the second boy why he was not at football practice, one of the younger kids said, "He got attitude."
Another of the champions who has learned championship behavior from the program has moved from fast food to a higher paying food service job and is now among the supervisors in an even higher paying job.
How to get involved? One first step might be 5:30 on a Monday evening to show up and share the meal at the Welcome Table at First Methodist Church on Main Street Rutherford. Ask for Turner or Deck. Enjoy the meal. Maybe hang around to see what happens.