Mike Tharp: 'The need is so great'

Mission struggles to help feed, clothe and house our neighbors as their number grows ever larger.

November 5, 2011 

This year's free Thanksgiving feed by the Merced Rescue Mission won't be the same.

The annual turkey-and-fixings giveaway will be held, for the first time in years, without the unforgettable presence of Chief Executive Office Herb Opalek.

Herb died suddenly of a heart attack in April.

But that's not the only reason the holiday charity event will be different. Among the 3,000 or so expected to line up outside American Legion Hall will be many new faces. People who in years past might even have been among the 75 or so volunteers who spoon the gravy and fork the turkey for the folks in line. Or who gave food or money to the mission.

This year, it could be your neighbor standing in line on Main Street.

This year, it could be you.

"It's gone from a mixture of the homeless and addicted to the people next door to you," says Bruce Metcalf, the mission's new CEO. People have lost their jobs, their homes to foreclosure.

The new profile applies to those seeking help at the mission itself as well as those who dine on Turkey Day. The Rev. Prapai Wanlarbkam, the longtime director of Christian Services at the mission, says its Canal Street lodgings are full up with 23 "disciples," men who agree to the house rules and regs for up to a year and work to exorcise their drugging, drinking and other demons.

Plus, 15 to 20 men come in most days for chow, a bed, clean clothes and prayer. "If we had the space, we could take 10 more (disciples)," says Metcalf, who retired as pastor of Hilmar Covenant Church after 28 years and was a close friend of Opalek. They serve 100,000 meals a year.

Short term, the mission is looking for two 40-foot-long containers, one to store food, another for clothing. That would open up space in the building for more souls to save.

They'd also like someone to donate empty office space the mission could use to expand its services. "The demand is there," says Metcalf. "The need is just so great."

Longer term, they'll need a new building to replace the ramshackle structure they use now.

The lingering recession has hurt the mission's donations, just as it has for so many other local nonprofits. People have been laid off, and now just three women -- down from 12 a year ago -- are being helped at a separate facility in North Merced.

Back to the present. Thanksgiving is just 19 days away. "I haven't gotten anything," Prapai says with a shrug. "I've got to do more praying this week. If we don't get the stuff in the next two weeks, we're not going to be able to feed 3,000 people. We're starting out with a zero budget."

The mission needs hundreds of turkeys, cranberry sauce, canned corn and green beans, pies, dinner rolls, salads, instant stuffing and mashed potatoes and all the serving wares that go with the food. Dozens of tables should be piled high with donated clothing for people to take after they eat. Food, clothing and money can be donated at the mission, 1921 Canal St., or by sending a check to the mission at P.O. Box 3319, Merced 95344.

Rev. Phil Schnauss, supervisor of Men's Ministries at the mission, had the idea to put 50 blue 50-gallon drums around the county for people to drop in their donations. City schools, Merced Irrigation District, clubs at UC Merced and others have organized drives to fill the barrels.

And here's the news flash: the mission wants to duplicate Thanksgiving on Christmas Day this year -- subbing hams for turkeys but asking for all the other contributions. "The need is so great," says Metcalf.

Like private sector companies and public agencies, the mission finds itself trying to do more with less. That means focusing on its core services. "We're all about change," says Prapai. "We want to put people back on their feet, to become contributing members of society again."

The mission shows more consensus these days. "We're still following Herb's vision," says Metcalf, "but as a team."

Two years ago, Herb wrote in one of his Sun-Star columns: "Merced has a great opportunity to swim against this rising tide of indifference and callousness to the poor and homeless. All it takes is people of good will and full cooperation between community benefit organizations, the faith-based community, and city and county governments."

That's a lot. But we can do it. And we will.

Because next year, it could be us.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

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