Lebanon’s low-income and homeless populations will soon have a new resource in The Bridge House, a nonprofit focused on feeding and clothing locals in need.
Members of The Bridge Fellowship church created the organization to serve the same purpose as a mission trip for the community, and served more than 60 families during an open house on Sunday.
The Bridge House is located across the street from the Wilson County Community Help Center and is scheduled to open on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. beginning Oct. 6.
“Whoever wants to come in, they’ll fill out an info sheet so we can learn how many people are in their family and what they’ll need,” Bridge House coordinator Vicky Chilton said. “As we can in the future, we may add more days.”
Second Harvest Food Bank is helping the organization keep its pantry stocked with weekly donations, and the building also has a variety of clothing and baby care products.
Families will initially be limited to one visit per month to help maintain supplies, but the goal is to grow beyond that.
“As believers, we’re really called to serve our neighbors,” Bridge House board member Michael Joyce said. “You see churches do a lot of mission trips to places like Africa and Central America, but we’re in a mission field in our own hometown, and there’s an opportunity for the entire faith community to get involved.”
The Bridge House’s board hopes to eventually partner with churches throughout Wilson County to address local poverty and homelessness.
“Last year we had a month of prayer and the theme was that we felt we weren’t making a big enough impact on Lebanon,” Bridge House Director of Operations Daria Hopper said. “We support a lot of local organizations, but we felt like we needed to do more for people facing economic disadvantages in the city.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Lebanon’s poverty rate is 14.5% as of 2018 — higher than the 11.8% national average from the same year. Feeding America also places Wilson County’s food insecurity rate at 9.1% as of 2018, which is below the national average (11.5%) but means almost 1 in 10 families struggle to afford enough to eat.
The Bridge House took a head start on helping those families during Sunday’s open house, which provided free food, clothing, haircuts and showers.
“It’s been amazing and humbling,” volunteer Jennifer Otto said. “I’ve had some great conversations and met some amazing people. We had a kid come in this morning in tears with his head hanging, and watching him transform as he went from place to place made my day.”
Initially, the organization will focus solely on food and clothing, but could potentially expand to include regular haircuts, showers and even shelter. Board members are also exploring other ways to use the building.
“We’d love to do some educational classes to help people with basic skills like reading writing and math,” Chilton said. “We’re also going to have some information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program so people can start to provide for themselves.”
Joyce said others classes could be put in place to address community needs, like resume writing, budgeting and parenting skills. Another long-term goal is to use the building’s extra space for services not currently in the county, like a crisis pregnancy center.
“The thing is, we don’t want to assume we know what people need,” she said. “We want to get to know them so we can provide to the best of our ability.”
Volunteers were afforded plenty of opportunities to have those conversations at the open house. Cindy Monroe spent her day meeting families and helping them find a fresh set of clothes.
“I think it’s great, and it’s definitely been much needed,” she said. “We’re seeing people that might not normally need to come out, but people have lost their jobs because of COVID-19 and everything. So hopefully we’ll be able to help people get through that too.”
To help prevent COVID-19 from spreading at the open house, volunteers took temperature checks and wore masks. Joyce said the organization will continue sanitizing and encouraging masks once it opens.
“It’s probably a lot of the same common sense procedures you see throughout the community,” he said. “We don’t want to put anybody in a situation where they don’t feel comfortable coming here.”
Those who did attend the open house left knowing what they can expect from The Bridge House in October, and Chilton said the kickoff was a success.
“I think it’s just amazing to watch people when they come and check in,” she said. “What a transformation it is when they walk away with a clean set of clothes and a box or bag of food.”