A Germantown Ministry helps build up neighbors by meeting them where they are
Germantown Avenue Crisis Ministry (GACM) has been a lifeline for many in Germantown, providing connections to community resources, government programs, and a stocked food cupboard for those facing adversity. But taking care of the necessities is just the start for the GACM team. “We believe in strengths” said Eileen Jones, the Executive Director, “everyone has them, but sometimes they’re hard to see when you’re going through difficult times.”
For over 20 years, she’s worked with clients in distress and has been awed by their ability to tap into their resources to overcome challenging times, stabilize their situations, and even be a resource for others in their time of trouble. Not surprisingly she’s also witnessed the gratitude of those that GACM has helped over the years – the “pay it forward” folks who feel indebted to an organization that was there for them at their lowest moments.
Luckily, Eileen was able to spare some time to bring us up to speed on GACM’s philosophy and work in the neighborhood.
Part of your mission is to help clients “find the resources within.” What does that mean?
I got my social work degree from Temple. They taught a model based on a strengths perspective. The idea is that everybody has a strength. And this is contrary to the medical model that looks at a person’s deficit, so they can prescribe something to fix it. The strength perspective says, I’m going to start by identifying your strengths and we’re going to build upon that to address challenges in your life. And it really works.
The first thing we do when we meet a client is to find out what their strengths are and help them think about their priorities so we can advocate for them. It’s a way to build trust and to include the client in the process of bettering their situation. And we’re going to advocate with them to address the priorities they choose, even if we disagree with those priorities. In the end, it’s their choice. And that’s where, in social work terms, it’s meeting the client where they are and helping them to build self-determination.
In trying to get a better idea of where they’re at, we ask questions like “where do you live?”, “who lives with you?”, etc. It’s a way to identify their social support system and the resources in their house. It also helps us figure out what’s actually going on in the household and find resources in their own lives that may help. Of course we also begin to develop a list of resources in our own network that can be helpful.
And then we look at their finances and help them with budgeting. Putting actual numbers to things like bills — water, gas, electricity, as well as spending habits and needs. And we then just go over that paper — this side is dollars in, this side is dollars out. If we can get them thinking about those things, it can help them make changes and build their self-reliance.
A lot of times during these discussions, people realize that they have more power or support than they ever knew, or that they have access to tools that can help them move towards success. It’s a powerful thing to understand that they’re not just someone in need, but are part of the process of improving their situation.
How do you connect them to community resources?
There are many people who are not aware of programs that exist in the community. And we are very fortunate that Northwest Philadelphia is a rich environment of community organizations, nonprofits, and social services. Fortunately, we work well together. So if somebody comes to us, and we determine that it may be more appropriate for them to go to another organization because they have more comprehensive services for families with children for example, we’re going to connect them to those other organizations. We often make an initial connection so that they don’t fall through the cracks. We don’t just provide someone a list of phone numbers and tell them to “chase the list.”
What about your job has been surprising?
It’s amazing how people give back, especially in tough times like these. Just last week, when I opened the mail, there was a copy of a client check to a local landlord. In with the check was a lovely note from the landlord himself which read, “I am just so thankful that you were there and what you are doing for people” – and he included a $200 check to the Ministry! It was just amazing. You know, this is not a big government facility writing a check. It’s just profoundly gratifying when people give back like that.
And that generosity toward others extends to our clients. When they shop our food cupboard, you’ll hear them sharing information with one another about programs or resources or where to go to get this, that or the other.
How did you get into social work? Did you have role models who inspired you?
Well, I was in foster care from an early age. For the first couple years social workers would check in on me and my foster family. And I remember their work. One of my social workers was Mr. Short, and he was very tall. Another was Rochelle Carlton — I would love to meet her today. She was wonderful. But I had these folks in my life who I could trust.
And then additionally, my foster father was a pastor, and my mother was a part of his work. They grounded me in the church as a person of faith. I learned the value of service and community responsibility and developed a sense of pride in being a black woman, and working with black folks to be the best that they could be, in addition to enhancing the community.
So from very early on, I had a sense of this purpose, and it eventually brought me to First Presbyterian church in 1986, when I joined the church staff. And at that time, Germantown was going through big changes. It was becoming more diverse. The church wanted to serve the community, but not in a patriarchal way. They were looking for partnership with their neighbors. And I have been blessed to have been a part of that growing experience.
Thank you so much for the use of the church (and the work of your volunteer team) for our Red Carpet Vaccination Event last month with Jefferson University. What was your experience of it?
I’m so glad that Sheena Thompson from the Local Community Resource Center reached out to us because there is power in community. Larry Benjamin (Mazzoni Center) was also instrumental in making the event happen. Some of the folks who volunteered as vaccinators were people from the community, some from the congregation, some from the neighborhood – who all wanted to give back.
We also had a big boost from the Visiting Nurses Association in East Falls – they brought several nurses to vaccinate as well. It was such a blessing for our clients, many of whom had trouble getting the vaccine. And I’m very pleased it was such a success – we planned to administer 200 shots, but we actually provided 205 and all three news networks came out to cover the event!
Such a success! And that’s because of community and coming together – when we do that, we can remove barriers, solve problems, and really get things done.
How can people support GACM?
Donations are always welcome, of course (visit crisisministry.org or mail a check to GACM at 35 West Chelten Avenue 19144). That’s how we help people keep the lights on and food on the table, prevent eviction, and support our educational efforts.
And we can always use volunteers. However, because of COVID, we have restrictions currently on the numbers of people who can be in the building. But if you call our office (215-843-2340) and let us know what your interests are, we’ll put you on a list so that as things open up, we can reach out to you. BTW, we’ve got an immediate need for computer savvy folks, particularly for our website.
GACM was founded in 1997 by a number of local churches to address the growing need for emergency services by residents in their community. The clergy from these Northwest congregations noticed an increase in the number of people who came to their doors requesting emergency assistance. They determined that the most effective way to handle this trend was to establish a centralized ministry, so they combined their financial resources to fund a part-time social work staff position and to provide money for emergency grants and direct service.
35 W. Chelten Avenue (Located in The First Presbyterian Church in Germantown)