Tanya Inabinet, who works for the State of South Carolina, was a single mother in the process of moving to Columbia in 2006. Commuting back and forth from her home in Orangeburg was costing too much in gas and time, and it was causing wear and tear on her car.
“I was looking for housing,” Tanya says. “I found an apartment that I thought I could afford. I had all my stuff in the car, and I thought I had all my ducks in a row. But it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t really know anyone in Columbia, and I didn’t have all the funds I needed. Someone told me about The Cooperative Ministry. They helped me secure rent for an apartment where I stayed for 13 years. If they had not helped me, I may have been homeless or living out of my car with my children. I was sitting there crying when they were doing my application. They did more for me than I ever imagined.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau data (2014-2018), the median household income of Richland County is $53,922. The average annual income of clients seeking assistance from The Cooperative Ministry is $19,354. And the Census Bureau reports 16.7 percent of people in Richland County live below the poverty level. Richland County and the Midlands reflect the current climate in the United States; the data from the 2019 Prosperity Now Scorecard shows that millions of families are either struggling to make ends meet or are just one emergency away from a financial disaster.
The Cooperative Ministry has been working for many years to chip away at those numbers. In fact, 38 years ago, The Cooperative Ministry was created by five downtown Columbia churches and is currently supported not just by churches, but also by corporations, small businesses, and individuals as well.
The Cooperative Ministry’s mission statement summarizes its purpose: “To increase the economic self-sufficiency of people experiencing poverty in the Midlands through crisis assistance and sustainability.”
According to Wanda Pearson, chief program officer, “The Cooperative Ministry’s founders’ emphasis on coordinating the faith community’s response to local need has remained the same. The response has become more focused as The Cooperative Ministry has grown wiser regarding our ability to impact poverty at the individual and community levels.”
The main highlight is their commitment to broadening the community’s support network for those who struggle to make ends meet despite having regular income from employment. Their focus is consistent with research showing that people who work experience fewer episodes of situational poverty and are less likely to live in chronic poverty.
In 2019, 13,025 people received help from The Cooperative Ministry. A huge need is counseling, which Wanda says is provided in partnership with First Presbyterian Church’s Christian Counseling Center. “The service is available to anyone who wishes to participate. We publicize counseling services using flyers and the lobby TV. Staff may also inform clients in the course of providing other services.”
Through its Car Program, The Cooperative Ministry accepts cars in all conditions. Most of the cars are sold, generating financial resources for program services like crisis assistance. Occasionally, a car is donated that is roadworthy and suitable for driving, thus providing work transportation for clients.
The Cooperative Ministry’s main goal is to provide short-term assistance that leads to long-term stability. “We serve the working poor and those in acute crisis,” Scott Vaughan, director of community awareness, says. “We are not a hand-out organization. Our mission is to help people become self-sustaining. We are a local organization. All funds donated to The Cooperative Ministry remain in the community, serving people in our Greater Columbia area. Clothing donated to our clothing bank is given to others without charge — our clothing bank is not a revenue stream.”
To determine need, Wanda says that The Cooperative Ministry looks at issues such as the following:
●Shortage of affordable housing — 27.6 percent of renters in Richland County are severely cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their monthly income for rent and utilities.
●Child poverty — nearly 30 percent of children in Richland County live in poverty, and a critical consequence is that they are likely to be poor in adulthood.
●Access to health care — 11 percent of Richland County residents have no health insurance.
“Health issues, and their impact on a person’s ability to work, underlie a significant number of the requests we receive for food, clothing, rent, and utility assistance,” Wanda explains.
Under Wanda’s direction, a new Client Advisory Committee convened for the first time in January to help contribute to the current and future work of The Cooperative Ministry as well as discuss community issues. The committee will meet at least six times per year. A Congregational Advisory Committee, including representatives from partnering churches, meets at times with Bill Taber, director, Crisis Assistance, to help The Cooperative Ministry staff better understand the church community’s intersection with poverty and clients. Bill, a retired Presbyterian pastor, also meets personally with every client in need of financial assistance, and he directs volunteers who interview all crisis assistance clients.
A full-time staff of 15 operates the organization, while the board of directors includes 17, from a representative of the Columbia Police Department to a senior minister to an attorney. A main job of staff is to assess applicants’ eligibility for The Cooperative Ministry’s many services to determine if they will become “clients.”
Staff and trained volunteers ask applicants to tell their stories in enough detail to help to determine if the need is transient or chronic. Successful applicants illustrate their narratives by providing documentation of their monthly income and expenses while working with the intake counselor to transfer the information to a budget worksheet.
Beth H. Irick, who has served as chief executive officer for the past five years, says an average of 50 to 75 people contact The Cooperative Ministry each day. “Some just need certain types of clothing for a job or for their children; they might need blankets or dishes or other household items if there was a fire, for example,” Beth says. “We see our clients day to day. We have relationships with them that we have established. It’s very fulfilling, enlightening, and heart-warming.”
Since 2006, The Cooperative Ministry has been located at 3821 W. Beltline Boulevard in Columbia. The organization is debt-free, according to Scott, because the mortgage was paid in 2017 through a community capital campaign. Thus, overhead is low.
“For every dollar we receive, 89 cents goes to direct program services,” Scott says. “The Cooperative Ministry is supported by 57 faith partners; foundation, corporate, and small business grants and gifts; and, hundreds of individual gifts from members of the community. We also participate each year in Midlands Gives. Several special events are being planned for 2020 that will raise awareness of our mission while also generating much-needed funds to help our clients.”
He says emphatically that The Cooperative Ministry would not survive and thrive without its bank of 876 volunteers, who contributed 12,927 volunteer hours in 2019, serving to interview clients, enter data, sort clothing, stock the food pantry, educate, guide tours of the facility, assist with reception and client service, and help with landscaping and building maintenance.
Sometimes the helped become the helpers. Ever since The Cooperative Ministry provided Tanya assistance, she says she tries to give back. “A portion of my check goes to them,” Tanya says. “I’m an empty nester now, so when I cleaned out things, I wanted to give the gently used items to The Cooperative Ministry. If people find themselves in a bind and can go to an agency like that for assistance, that can make all the difference in their lives. Not just at Christmas time or Thanksgiving, it’s an all-year-round organization that is needed here.”
Since its inception almost four decades ago, The Cooperative Ministry has evolved and expanded. Awareness of its mission has increased as evidenced by a growth of 30 percent in the organization’s database over the past two years. “We are constantly listening to our church partners and clients, evaluating services to meet community needs,” Scott says. “We just added the counseling service in 2019, and we also added a job placement service, partnering with local employers in need of help; we can refer potential employees from within our client database.”
The Cooperative Ministry is piloting a program that will help clients obtain job-specific certifications and licenses, leading to improved employment futures. One of their significant highlights is growth within their Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which annually provides free tax preparation assistance. In 2019, IRS-trained volunteers prepared 8,816 free tax returns that generated $5.6 million in refunds.
“It’s an ongoing process,” says Beth. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of clients that come to us for services, but we teach them and train them to have financial sustainability over a matter of time. Our focus is to really help people bridge the gap, people who are living paycheck to paycheck whose financial stability might spiral for a number of reasons. We help them in a crisis to move forward and keep them from becoming homeless.”