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Helping those in need: Churches United building on services

BEMIDJI- After 10 years providing assistance ranging from food, shelter, clothing and budget education, Churches United is looking to expand its services to those in need.

"It is a group of different churches, different religions and different practices but it is amazing how we all have the same goal, which is to help the people in need," Churches United Executive Director Sarah Einerson said Friday.

In 2002, a small group of churches decided there was a need for a place people could go for assistance.

As people in need went from church to church requesting help, the requests put a strain on church secretaries, ministers and priests.

The idea for Churches United was born and the organization celebrates its 10-year anniversary with a pie social Sunday.

In 2011, Churches United served 1,626 people ranging from the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts, veterans and families who have suffered a recent tragedy. Each client fills out an interview card providing the staff with information regarding monthly income and expenses, allowing the staff to keep records on clients, something the churches did not do before.

"We don't take over a priest or minister's job but sometime we are here because somebody comes in and just wants someone to talk to," Einerson said. "I have clients that come in because they feel safe and good here."

Originally, Churches United worked out of the St. Philip's Catholic Church but moved to the Zion Church on Lincoln Avenue in 2009 to allow more space to expand services to include clothing, diapers, blankets, sheets and other household items to clients.

Churches United partners with the Salvation Army, the United Way, Disabled Veterans and the Servants of Shelter, providing people with other resources in Bemidji when needed.

"A lot of what we do is referring because we are very low budget," Einerson said. "What we ask of the churches is one dollar per member per year."

Last year, Churches United raised $46,154 while generating $47,307 in expenses. Einerson said they have a three-month reserve but they have a strict budget they try to stick to.

The office sees an average of 40 new clients a month, with some recurring visitors, Einerson said. The staff has 15 volunteers, a number that has increased over the years, allowing for Einerson to cut back on interviewing clients and focus more on her executive director duties.

"Working with a volunteer staff allows both the clients and the staff to meet a section of the population that normally they wouldn't associate themselves with," Einerson said. "It opens up the volunteer's eyes, they bring that information to the church and through that we get more volunteers."

The organization has grown to 27 churches and Einerson would like to see that number continue to rise, allowing for more money in the budget to expand and provide more hours.

The executive director also said she would like to continue a growing partnership with Servants of Shelter to provide shelter for the homeless and find a central location where it could have a food shelf, shelter and a soup kitchen in one place.

Einerson said Churches United is important to Bemidji because it provides things that no other non-profit provides.

"It is the best job I have ever had. I have always had a lot of empathy," Einerson said "It takes a certain type of personality but there are opportunities in this job that I would have never come face to face with."

To celebrate the 10 year anniversary, Churches United's pie social and silent auction will be 1-4 p.m. Sunday at Calvary Lutheran Church. A $5 free will offering is suggested at the door.