Printed on: November 12, 2013

ABOVE & BEYOND: I.F. Community Outreach Center

By CODY McDEVITT
cmcdevitt@postregister.com

It's noon on Oct. 28. The volunteers at the Idaho Falls Community Outreach Center scoop mashed potatoes and fork ham onto plates for a line of seven people.

The cafeteria is already packed, and those remaining in line will have a tough time finding a seat. The soup kitchen is open seven days a week and serves more than 45,000 meals a year, according to the center's website.

The people who come here struggle to survive on little to no income and often are overlooked by the community.

"I'm glad it's here," said Eve Garrett, a 57-year-old Idaho Falls resident. "Some days I would have no food if it wasn't. I would starve."

The soup kitchen may be the most visible of the services offered by the Community Outreach Center, but the center and its partner charities help the downtrodden with everything from prescription drugs to literacy and housing.

It is a critical cog in the community.

"The work they do is terrific," said Russ Spain, executive director of the Eastern Idaho Community Action Partnership. "They provide a much needed service to the community. It is a place a lot of nonprofits can use as a great example."

Humble beginnings

The center "started as a dream shared by several members of St. Mark's Episcopal Church," according to its website, ifoutreach.org. The members worked in the soup kitchen, which was operated out of the church.

St. Mark's and the congregation of St. John's Episcopal Church merged in 2003 to form St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

The former St. Mark's building was sold and provided funds to purchase the former Medical and Professional Credit Union, which was next door to the church at 301 S. Boulevard.

Because there was so much extra room in the new building, the soup kitchen organizers invited four other charities to share the space at no charge and the Community Outreach Center was born.

Supporting education

One of its programs is Friend in Service Here, which has given local students 825 backpacks filled with school supplies worth a total of $41,000. Program officials work with teachers and administrators from Idaho Falls School District 91 and Bonneville Joint School District 93 to make sure the backpacks are available to students who need them.

"We're trying to meet the need," said Bev Kemp, program chairwoman. "School supplies are very expensive. We have parents who are choosing between dinner and school supplies. No one is going to starve of not having a backpack, but children are going to be awfully embarrassed at school if they don't have one."

Housing help

The center's Emergency Housing Exchange has found temporary housing for families and individuals 242 times during the past three and a half years. It coordinates with the Idaho Health and Welfare Department, which knows of other housing possibilities. The center's housing help is a one-time offer.

Cher Stone, chairwoman of the center's board of directors, said it monitors a database of who has received help.

"We are not a hotel system," Stone said. "If we've helped them once, unless it's extreme circumstances, since we have limited resources, we don't help them (again). If they're stranded, or if they've been kicked out of their apartment, then we can help them, but if they don't want to get into the system, we won't help."

A leg up

The center's Partners for Prosperity program, which started in January 2004, aims to reduce poverty in eastern Idaho. Its primary strategy is a financial fitness program that includes free tax preparation for low-income people, financial management classes and foreclosure counseling.

The program also tries to place people in living-wage jobs.

"Our campaign brings in close to $3 million (yearly) to the hands of low-income people," said Jessica Sotelo, executive director of Partners for Prosperity. "It helps the regional economy. Hopefully by next year we'll be able to show we helped hundreds of people (this year). We've had a huge impact."

She said the program also saved clients nearly $2 million in tax preparation fees.

Prescription drug assistance

The center's prescription medication program is called Free Med, and since its inception 12 years ago, it has helped 2,819 people get prescription medications they couldn't otherwise afford. For single people to be eligible for aid, they cannot make more than $22,980 a year. Last year, the program ordered 5,200 90-day supplies of medications for their clients.

"Generally, what I like to tell people is the human-interest side of it," said John Buzzell, director of the local prescription program. "Because Free Med exists, there are mothers who can take care of their children, employees who won't miss work and seniors who are able to get out of the house."

A community effort

The center gets its funding from community donations. Stone said it takes $14,000 to $15,000 a year to pay the utilities and other operating expenses for the facility.

It's staffed strictly by volunteers such as Isahias Galvin, 21, a soup kitchen volunteer.

"I like to help people," Galvin said. "My favorite part is knowing they will get a meal and that I made a difference."

Stone and Dan Sanow were driving forces behind opening the center in 2003, and both remain actively involved. The building and all the agencies in it are dear to Stone's heart.

"We took this huge leap of faith," she said. "We just did it, and we didn't think about the consequences if we got halfway through and ran out of money. That didn't even occur to us. My favorite thing is we can put all these agencies under one roof and they don't have to pay anything to be here. That, to me, is what a community center should be all about."

Reporter Cody McDevitt can be reached at 542-6751.

Idaho Falls Community Outreach Center

Location: 301 S. Boulevard

Website: ifoutreach.org