Last Christmas, a single father stopped at North Country Ministry to pick up donated Christmas presents for his five-year-old son. As he accepted the gifts, he couldn't look the NCM caseworker in the eye -- but he pulled a $5 bill out of his pocket and held it out to her.
"This is the last money I have, but I have to do something for the ministry, after you've done so much for my son," he said.
Judy Carr choked up as she told The Evangelist the story. Recent weeks have been especially difficult for clients of North Country Ministry, the executive director explained, with the holidays approaching and winter's bite hitting the Albany Diocese.
NCM has sites in North Creek and Warrensburg. As the outreach organization marks its 25th anniversary this year, there is no hope that the human services it provides will ever be unneeded in the southeastern Adirondack region. In the year 2000, 10.7 percent of the region's population were living in poverty; by 2015, that number had risen to 13.2 percent.
"The sad thing is, the needs are still the same as they were 25 years ago," Ms. Carr said. In the Adirondacks, "there's not a lot of hope for new job creation. People try to piece together low-paying, seasonal work to support themselves and their families."
A quarter-century ago, North Country Ministry was founded by four women religious from different orders who wanted to serve an area with few resources. Then-Bishop Howard J. Hubbard pointed them to the North Country of the Adirondacks as a region that had many unmet needs.
St. James parish in North Creek (now part of St. Isaac Jogues parish in Chestertown, Hague and North Creek), St. Cecilia's in Warrensburg and Sacred Heart in Lake George sponsored NCM's creation with financial support and volunteers. The three parishes still actively support the ministry, as do Methodist and Presbyterian churches that provide space for community meals and furniture storage.
NCM provides food, gas, furniture, clothing and other essentials, plus emergency assistance and casework services, covering 650 square miles. There are Baby's Place play groups and an infant and child car seat safety program, weekly free lunches at The Gathering Place and efficiency apartments that serve as transitional housing.
In total, NCM offers about 1,200 services each month. Its initial group of 30 volunteers has grown over the years to more than 100 people who offer 7,000 hours of time annually.
In July, North Country Ministry expanded to Pottersville, the poorest community in New York State. The U.S. census lists the median income there as approximately $14,280.
A new food pantry in Pottersville will soon open in 400 square feet of space donated by local businessman Joe Brand, whose All Brands Redemption Center is located in the same building.
Ms. Carr noted that food wasn't part of NCM's initial list of services, but when the ministry opened a food pantry in Warrensburg in 2014, use of all the other services rose, as well. She said that's because "people came to trust us" and would approach NCM's two full-time caseworkers for help.
Asking for help is not easy for any of the clients, the director said. She recalled meeting a man standing with his hands in his pockets in 11-degree weather outside the Warrensburg food pantry: She asked if she could help him, and he said he'd never used a food pantry before and didn't know what to do. Moreover, he'd been very ill and didn't want to come near the other patrons.
Ms. Carr brought him through the pantry's back door and introduced him to volunteers who explained how he could choose the food he needed. They offered other help, but the man turned them down.
Pride and poverty
Ms. Carr sees that as a reminder of how difficult it can be for people to admit they're struggling.
"We can't blame people who are caught up in generational poverty for being caught up in it," she added.
Emergency assistance is a major need for NCM clients. Many families come to the ministry in crisis; Ms. Carr cited one family of five where the father, the main breadwinner, had become suddenly and severely disabled and the mother had been working several part-time jobs trying to support the family.
By the time they approached NCM, they had run out of food, they couldn't heat their home and their electricity had been turned off. NCM stepped in and made a payment to National Grid to get the power back on, negotiated a payment plan for the family and helped them apply for SNAP (food stamps) and HEAP (heating assistance).
For its 25th anniversary, North Country Ministry has instituted a campaign to raise $250,000 to expand its services and programs geographically, provide more emergency assistance and caseworker support, and add to its food pantry services and the "food backpacks" sent home with elementary-aged children. The latter is a team effort with the YMCA.
More than half of the campaign goal has been raised, partially through a spring gala.
Ms. Carr said that people tend to live more simply in the Adirondacks. NCM's clients are used to doing without many comforts other New Yorkers might take for granted; they're also used to telling themselves, "Things will get better. I can hang on a little longer, and it will be OK."
But Jesus said, "The poor, you will always have with you," Ms. Carr continued.
The director thinks of people like an elderly client who was living bundled in blankets in her dark apartment with the temperature at about 40 degrees, having had to choose among food, fuel and electricity because she couldn't afford all three.
"It would be great if we could go out of business because people wouldn't need us anymore," Ms. Carr said. "But there are always going to be people who are marginalized. My goal for the next 25 years is to do what we can to reach as many people as we can, effectively."
(Donate to North Country Ministry at PO Box 478, 3933 Main St., Warrensburg 12885. Contact NCM at 518-623-2829 or 518-251-4460.)