By Jennifer Johnson
Like many organizations committed to helping people in need, Salt & Light Ministries in Champaign, IL, began by giving away food, clothing, and other items. Unlike many of those organizations, however, Salt & Light eventually changed its structure and its systems to empower people to meet their own needs—and the ministry is thriving.
“For years we did the ‘free stuff’ model,” says Lisa Sheltra, associate director. “In fact, we were the largest emergency food pantry in Champaign County, feeding hundreds of households each week. But we still ran out of food and had to turn people away, and we realized that no matter how much we increased our capacity, we’d never have enough.”
The leadership team began to read books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity and to ask what it really means to help people.
“Many of the families came every week,” Sheltra says. “These families were not in an emergency situation; an emergency doesn’t happen every Wednesday for six years. So we started to ask, ‘What is the need?’ People needed to shop for food to feed their families, but the solution we offered was a handout. Our solution didn’t meet their need, so we changed the solution.”
Today Salt & Light invites people to volunteer at their own facilities or at more than 60 other organizations throughout Champaign. Each “member” who volunteers can earn up to $165 in store credit every month by volunteering up to 20 hours. Each hour worked is valued at $8.25, and the credit can be used to purchase clothing and household items in the thrift store or food from the food co-op. Both stores are also open to the public.
This system not only gives dignity to every person involved, it also allows the members to choose their own food based on the needs and preferences of their families.
“People assume that if you’re getting a handout, you’re lazy,” Sheltra says. “But I’ve found the opposite to be true. People are excited to join this program, and they work hard as volunteers. If you’re going to stand in line for five hours for a pre-packed bag of stuff I picked out for you or work five hours so you can shop for yourself, most people will gladly work and shop.”
In addition to these programs, Salt & Light also created a personal development plan that trains volunteers to be “allies” who listen, ask good questions, suggest growth steps, and mentor individuals and couples who are struggling.
“Many people we work with don’t have a support network, and they need someone to talk to,” Sheltra says. “Others want help with specific goals like finding a job or writing a resumé.”
The ministry also offers a Faith and Finances class that teaches money management skills; a Jobs for Life training course to help adults understand their identity, develop their character, and grow in a supportive community; and even a computer lab with computer help available by appointment.
Sheltra says Salt & Light’s work has the potential to change lives, change communities, and change the way we think about that “free stuff” model. Instead of pouring money into giveaways, this approach uses the same dollars to encourage personal responsibility and hard work.
“Our members are earning what they need while developing our community in significant ways,” she says. “They’re earning credit by volunteering in our nonprofits and our schools—the same schools where many of our high-risk students need help! So we’re not only breaking even financially, we’re helping to solve problems in education, employment, and other sectors. It’s revolutionary.”