By Ginny Wray
At 92 years of age, Eugene Wagoner has found the secret to a long, full life — Grace Network.
It is not the food or financial assistance that Grace Network distributes to area residents in crisis situations. It is his volunteer service at the agency.
“I think Grace is keeping me alive,” said Wagoner, of Martinsville. It does that by “giving me something to do and helping people.”
Grace Network is a faith-based, first-stop center for resources — generally food and/or financial help with housing and utility bills — for families in crisis in Martinsville and Henry County, according to its website.
In the 2017-18 fiscal year that ended June 31, Grace Network provided $121,432 worth of food to 3,444 individuals and $234,071 in housing and utility assistance to 1,616 clients, according to Tracy Hinchcliff, executive director of Grace Network. Some people, but not all, receive both food and financial assistance, she added.
That totaled $355,000 in assistance provided in the year.
That cost is covered by donations from 105 area churches, more than 65 other organizations and businesses, individuals and local foundation grants, Hinchcliff said. The organization receives no government money.
Grace Network is in a good financial position, she said. It is financially independent, pays only two salaries (Hinchcliff’s and that of part-time bookkeeper Pat Wilhite) and has minimal operating costs, Hinchcliff said. “We use our money very wisely,” and it has a reputation in the community for that, she added.
Still, she said, “the need never stops.”
Volunteers are the backbone of the organization. A total of 138 area residents donate their time to open and staff Grace Network five mornings and one afternoon (Thursday) each week. They also collect food donations, update computer records and perform other responsibilities, including the Pumpkin Patch fund-raiser, helping with Christmas toy drive at the Martinsville Speedway, collecting food at the July 4 celebration and others.
“We couldn’t survive without them,” Hinchcliff said of the volunteers.
A majority of the volunteers are retirees, and many were professionals in fields such as social services and teachers. Retirees have the time to work specific shifts each week or month, and many of them bring professional skills and manners to the agency and its clients, Hinchcliff said.
“There is a friendly environment that exudes to the clients. Everyone appreciates the stress level of the clients. … We just have a way around us that is loving and not judging, and we want to help,” she added.
Eugene Wagoner exemplifies that.
“He’s so endeared to us and us to him,” Hinchcliff said. “Grace (Network) is his family. He truly believes that. We feel the same way about him.”
“Everyone looks after him, especially those who have been around for a while,” she said. So if Wagoner isn’t at Grace when he is expected, someone will call and check on him, she said, adding that Wilhite is especially diligent about that.
Wagoner usually works Thursday afternoons at Grace Network, located on Liberty Street in Martinsville. But he often shows up for an hour or so several mornings each week to straighten the shelves in the food pantry, take care of the agency’s recycling, fill in for any volunteers who are absent and help with other tasks.
He has worked in the food pantry since the first day he walked into Grace Network when it was located on Fairy Street in Martinsville, and offered to volunteer. That was in 2006, a few months after Grace opened its doors.
“Wayne Eanes showed me around (the food pantry), showed me what we had. He said, ‘You’re trained now,’” Wagoner recalled, and he has been pitching in ever since.
At the time, Wagoner had retired from DuPont and needed something to do, he said. He wishes other senior citizens would do the same.
In the pantry, he and other volunteers help clients select canned food, boxes and bags of cereal and pasta and more from rows of shelves, They also choose fruits, vegetables, meat, bread and toiletries that have been donated or purchased with donated funds. Grace volunteers keep track of every item that is given out, Hinchcliff said.
“It just makes me (feel good to) know I’ve helped somebody and whatever they do with the food I’ve given them is up to them,” he said. “Most people thank me and other people, I guess.”
While he enjoys helping those in need, Wagoner said it is sad to see some clients return to Grace Network to get help. With some others, he said, “I wonder whether they need the help or not,” even though they are screened and interviewed to make sure they need assistance.
Hinchcliff acknowledged that despite Grace’s best efforts, “it’s not all rainbows and Skittles. There are some people whose job is to take advantage of what exists. We try to do what we can to combat fraud,” especially through the Charity Tracker computer program that logs assistance given by numerous local agencies. Hinchcliff credited the United Way with bringing the agencies together to help clients, she said.
Grace Network is not the only place where Wagoner volunteers. He helps in the finance department at Chatham Heights Baptist Church and with the Raceway Ministries at Martinsville Speedway. On race weekends, he goes into the campgrounds to talk with visitors, he said.
He has two grown sons, one in Georgia and one in South Carolina. “They think sooner or later I’m going to have to quit” volunteering, Wagoner said. “I say, ‘I ain’t quit yet.’”
“I think I’m going to have to give it up sooner or later,” added Wagoner, who still drives. But, he added, “I’ll keep coming as long as I’m able. The way I feel now I will keep coming.” And that is just fine with Hinchcliff. Grace Network’s ranks of volunteers has slipped recently, and new volunteers sometimes do not realize the commitment it requires and they don’t stay. So whenever she speaks about Grace Network in the community, she makes a pitch for volunteers.
Those who do volunteer have helped create an agency that has earned the community’s trust and a reputation for using donations wisely, Hinchcliff said, adding that comes back to the quality of the network’s volunteers.
“Everybody just cares about people,” she said. “And that leads me back to Eugene (Wagoner). He cares more than anybody.”