For the past 15 years, area residents facing crisis situations have been able to turn to Grace Network for help in keeping their utilities turned on, roofs over their heads and food on their tables.
Over the past 15 years, that help has been worth more than $3.17 million that has been donated by area churches, organizations, foundations, businesses, grants, individuals and others.
Tracy Hinchcliff, executive director of Grace Network, tells the story of one client to illustrate the impact Grace assistance can have. The client, a single mother and nurse being treated for a rare form of breast cancer, had to move from full-time to part-time work due to her treatment. Because of that loss of income and the high cost of genetic testing to determine if her daughter had the predisposition for the cancer, the woman fell behind on her electric bills.
With Grace’s help, the woman was able to move forward. “The wonderful part is that the tests came back and her daughter was fine,” Hinchcliff said. “It was a happy ending all the way around.”
Before 2006, people in crisis sometimes went from one church to another to seek help. That drained resources and was akin to “throwing money to the wind,” Hinchcliff said.
Seeking a better option, a few area churches, with the help of the local Ministerial Association and a small grant, formed a board to find a new way to help those in an emergency or crisis. They created Grace Network, a faith-based organization that does not seek government grants or funding.
From the start, the organization’s mission has been helping people in crisis maintain their housing and utilities and feed their families, Hinchcliff said. That mission has never wavered.
Clients are seen on a first-come, first-served basis during Grace’s weekday office hours. All clients are screened and interviewed by volunteers to determine their financial situation, their crisis and what help Grace may provide.
Clients must live in Martinsville or Henry County, and they must provide identification and proof of their income and expenses.
There is no income limit for getting assistance, Hinchcliff said, adding that she is proud of that. “We look at the story of the individual regardless of where they are financially,” she said, telling of one middle-class couple that was about to lose their home because they were spending all their money on the medical bills of the husband, who had cancer.
Learning each client’s story is important, Hinchcliff said. “We always strive to find out how they got to the situation they’re in, what are they doing to get out of it and how can Grace assist.”
There are caps on the assistance available to clients, she said. Often, if a person can pay or get funding for part of an outstanding bill, Grace will pay a share in hopes of avoiding a utility shutoff or eviction, for instance.
Hinchcliff compares poverty to a fragile spider web. When one thread is broken, the entire web can easily fall apart, with no safety net or backup plans. That is when Grace Network and other organizations may be able to help, she said.
“We know people who live in poverty for the most part will get by on their limited resources,” she said. “But when an emergency happens — (such as) the car breaks down — they don’t have savings” or a credit card to help see them through. So “they rob Peter to pay Paul” until they are in a crisis situation.
“We are not caseworkers, but we can stop the bleeding when they’ve fallen off the cliff,” Hinchcliff said. “That was the whole intention” of creating Grace Network.
Once the crisis is averted, or the bleeding has stopped, Hinchcliff said, “Then we have a responsibility to connect them (clients) with other agencies” to make people aware of the vast resources available in the community to help.
Partnerships with other agencies are “essential in any community if it is going to be successful in moving the needle of poverty,” she added.
Today, in addition to grants and other donations, Grace Network is supported by 125 local churches of all denominations. Some provide volunteers; some make monthly donations; some contribute food; and some do all three, Hinchcliff said. There is no minimum or maximum support required of a church.
“We are blessed that we do have an exemplary reputation in the community because of the way we treat people” and provide assistance, she said. As a result, donors “know the funds will be put to good use.”
The agency is governed by a 15-member board. About 40-50 percent of the board members are active volunteers who can give input on the day-to-day operations of Grace Network, and the rest are a diverse group of area residents who “all have a heart to help,” Hinchcliff said. They may serve a maximum of two, three-year terms on the board.
Statistics on Grace Network cases and dollars show an average of 3,500 clients and $211,448 each year respectively. Cases ranged as high as 4485 in fiscal 2012-13 to as low as 1,337 in fiscal 2020-21. (Figures are given for cases rather than clients since some clients may seek help more than once in a year.)
During those years, the highest total payout for client services was $308,017 in fiscal 2008-09. The lowest were $154,741 in fiscal 2019 and $163,327 in fiscal 2020.
Hinchcliff attributes the declines of those two years to the covid pandemic, but she expects the caseload and spending to rebound eventually. Like other agencies, Grace Network closed in April 2020 due to the pandemic, but it gradually resumed services, providing food boxes and then other services through efforts coordinated with other agencies and organizations.
For instance, local hotels agreed to house people whose family members were sick so they would not become ill. Hinchcliff delivered food to two single mothers who had children but no resources for food or other needs.
“We took it one day at a time and one problem at a time,” she said.
Eventually, the Grace offices at 16 Liberty St., Martinsville, reopened to see clients as the volunteers returned to serve.
Aside from Hinchcliff and a bookkeeper, Grace Network is staffed entirely with volunteers. Before the pandemic, Grace averaged 150 volunteers; now there are about 130. Twelve volunteers are needed for each of the six shifts when Grace Network serves clients (Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; Thursdays 4-7 p.m.)
Hinchcliff recruits volunteers constantly because fewer clients can be seen when the office is not fully staffed. Volunteers go through a one-hour orientation session, followed by an extensive training period that includes shadowing other volunteers.
Grace also has processes in place to protect it against fraud, Hinchcliff said. “Fraud is out there; we can’t be naive to it,” she said.
The Charity Tracker computer network, which was created through the United Way, not only steers clients to other organizations for help, but can also help as a fraud-protection tool that shows what area agencies have served a client. This data base has proven to be one of the best tools in helping Grace Network be efficient and effective, Hinchcliff said.
Hinchcliff said she feels prepared for whatever the future holds, in part because the covid pandemic showed how agencies — especially local, autonomous ones such as Grace Network — can come together to meet the community’s needs.
She hopes that someday Grace Network will not be needed, that hunger, strife and her job will not exist.
However, “the reality is that there will always be poverty on this earth. That’s the way the world works,” she said. “But I believe it’s our charge as Christians to help those less fortunate as it’s been for hundreds of years.”
So looking five to 10 years into the future, Hinchcliff predicted, “Grace will still be here.”
For more information on Grace Network, how to volunteer or how to contribute, call 638-8500.