A Walk Down Memory Lane with Flat River Outreach Ministries Part 1

This week, Flat River Outreach Ministries (FROM) will celebrate its 20th birthday with a Roaring 20s themed party.  During the past two decades, the non-profit organization has certainly roared and made its mark in the Lowell community.  FROM reaches hundreds of families each month through their food pantry. They also help with utility bills, offer tax preparation services, provide free medical equipment loans, coordinate housing projects through Neighbor to Neighbor, and much more.  Their long list of offered services shows their commitment to helping the community.  Most in the community have been touched by FROM through receiving help or helping others through donations.  

Early Beginnings
Flat River Outreach Ministries began with 13 local churches in the community coming together to create a food pantry for those in the community needing help.  They worked a food pantry out of the basement of First United Methodist Church, beginning in 1998, after 13 local churches worked together to address hunger in the Lowell area.   The following year funds through the Lowell Area Community Fund of Grand Rapids Community Foundation allowed the group to purchase a building at 519 Main Street.  It was at this location a Thrift Store, food pantry, and financial services were provided.  

“We started as a food pantry and thrift shop, operated by volunteers, it has become so much more.” says Jody Haybarker.  She and her husband Kraig were among the first group of elves working hard to make FROM a success. “The hands of FROM have reached beyond our expectations.”  There was an immediate need for additional space to accept and sort through items donated for the thrift store, which has been a hit from the start.  

In the beginning, an average of 12 families were served each month.  In 2001 the Food Pantry helped approximately 23 families each month, in 2006 the number grew to 53, and in 2017 an average of 170 families were served each month.  

Available Services
What started as an effort to provide food for families in need has grown to offering a wide variety of services to those in the Lowell community.  Lunch Buddies provides healthy meals to those in the Lowell Area Schools footprint during summer, winter, and spring breaks from school.  During tax season, volunteers are trained to be able to help with tax preparation.    Their Utility Payment Program offers help to those facing an economic hardship.  Christmas Distribution is one of the yearly highlights at FROM.  Plan for officially launching a housing component are also in the works.  

In addition to offering services to help those in need, FROM looks to help families and individuals find ways to be free of needing assistance.  Money management classes, career services, and empowerment coaching providing tools needed to set goals and improve lives.

Working Together
For 10 years, FROM would be run on a completely volunteer basis.   In 2009 the organization’s first employee would be hired. Dawn Broene has been in the role of Executive Director since 2014.  Her first experience with FROM was volunteering beginning in 2008 in the Thrift Shop, moving on to helping with financial assistance.  Currently, a group of seven staff members work in various capacities such as Program Director, Program Manager, Volunteer Coordinator, Marketing and Communications Director, Thrift Shop Coordinator, and Receptionist.  

However, volunteers are the backbone of FROM’s success.  Over 300 volunteers provide over 40,000 hours of service on a yearly basis.  Volunteers can be found working in Treasures Thrift Shop, the Connections Office, the Food pantry, Lunch Buddies, Backpacks, Christmas Distribution, the front office and more.  All services offered by FROM rely on helping hands.

Community Support
FROM would not be where it is today without the leadership of its board members throughout the years and the support of the community.  “I feel that FROM’s biggest accomplishment is the way it has brought the community together. I would think that 75% of the community somehow, someway have been involved with FROM at one time.” says Broene.  If a member of the community hasn’t received services over the past two decades, there’s a good chance support was given in one way or another. Donations of food, money, and time are what enables FROM to help as many individuals as possible.  

The Thrift Shop provides over 40% of the funds needed for FROM programs, so even through purchasing items at the store, it’s a way to help the organization.  Food Fight is the biggest fundraiser of the year for FROM, bringing in donations of food and money.  

Throughout the years the community has come together to support FROM and its efforts to serve those in the community needing a helping hand.  Tickets are still available for this Wednesday’s 20th birthday celebration.  On Thursday we will publish part 2, an article with thoughts of some key players in the community who have made FROM what it is today.  

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