A giggle greeted Dana Wright just last week when she answered the telephone at Loaves and Fishes Ministry. It was a former student, calling to test her own memory of the number.
Wright, 38, understands why she gets calls like that often, despite today’s technology that deletes the need for by-heart memory. From first through 12th grade, Wright herself was a student in the Loaves and Fishes program.
“It’s an extended family,” said Wright, 38, who now works as the organization’s assistant director and intervention specialist. “Once you’re in Loaves and Fishes, you’re here forever.”
For years, such stories were highlighted during the program’s spring fundraiser, Lifting Minds and Hearts.
But this year, without the money or manpower to put on the breakfast, Loaves and Fishes is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a phantom fundraiser. The invitation asks us to “stay home this year, but join us in spirit” with donations through April 15.
I applaud Loaves and Fishes for getting it right: Through thick or thin, hold hands and stick together.
The organization has been without an executive director since October. For longer than that, it has been without enough resources for even a part-time staff to handle its full-time load. But Loaves and Fishes hasn’t abandoned its decades-strong mission to guide disadvantaged children to academic, social and family success.
Wright says Loaves and Fishes’ endurance matches its founding philosophy.
“When you’re at Loaves and Fishes, you’re going to be loved, unconditionally; but you’re still going to be pushed and challenged to be the best you can be despite your situation, despite your circumstance,” she said. “We never give up. We’ll strive and think outside the box and say, ‘No matter what we come up against, there are still possibilities; there’s still hope out there.’ ”
In fact, the organization is in the midst of a revival and renewal.
Co-founders Betty Anne Ford and Nancy Newell are returning to the forefront of operations. Volunteers and donors are filling posts as administrators and executive officers. Staff members are stretching beyond energy levels and paychecks.
Added to the wrangle, the organization is pushing to land a $40,000 matching Stewards Fund Challenge grant and undergoing a voluntary self-assessment.
In April, Loaves and Fishes will begin a yearlong Capacity Building Project funded by the John Rex Endowment. With a transition team in place, the project will act on recommendations from a board assessment and look for other ways to improve.
“It’s time for us to go back and look at the way we do things,” Ford said, noting leadership transition and money woes spawned action. “We could have folded up at that point.
“After 30 years, have we served our purpose? Yes! But there are kids who still need us. We didn’t want to stop.”
Ford and Newell started Loaves and Fishes in the summer of 1982. Back then, Ford, now 68, was a tennis coach at Peace College who noticed children in the nearby Halifax Court public housing community with few constructive activities. Newell, now 64, was a graduate student of behavior disorders at N.C. State University.
The women set out simply to enrich summer doldrums. They figured they’d also relieve parents, many of whom had little time or adequate resources to steer their children’s success.
Initially, they settled at Westminster Presbyterian Church with first- and second-grade children. Since 1990, Loaves and Fishes has been at Milner Memorial Presbyterian Church on New Bern Avenue. The program serves 60 children in grades K-12. It boasts a 94 percent high school graduation rate.
Ford and Newell realized early on that Loaves and Fishes needed to be more than academic.
“The children taught us that didn’t work,” Newell said. “It was all of the other issues that impeded their progress. They needed the tools to solve conflicts in their lives in positive ways.
“For them to realize their full potential, we had to be holistic.”
That’s why long-time donor and volunteer Marian Troxler returned recently to teach first-graders.
“It’s not just afterschool care,” she said, adding the partnership with schools, teachers and families is invaluable and unmatched. “We really stick together. It’s a unique program.”
Newell said Loaves and Fishes’ survival is rooted in the words of a parent uttered in the earliest years of Loaves and Fishes: “Whatever you do, just don’t give up on us. We need you to stay around,” Newell recalled. “We needed to be in it for the long haul.”
That’s truer in tough times.
“There’s nobody that hard financial times are harder on than our families,” Newell said. “Even when it’s really hard for us, it’s even harder for them.”