It’s barely 10 a.m., but the waiting room is nearly full. Scores of people are seated in the small space. The demographic here runs the gamut: some cradle infants in their arms, some look like fresh college grads, and some have weathered faces and tufts of white hair.
But as different as they all look, they’re all here at Network of Community Ministries for the same reason: These neighbors are struggling to make ends meet, and they have come seeking help.

“Some need help paying their rent, or they can’t afford groceries, or they need school supplies for their kids,” says development director Bobbi Klein. “Under the right circumstances, there isn’t anything we can’t do for someone. The majority of the people we see in here live paycheck to paycheck, so when the car breaks down or there’s a medical emergency, they don’t have anything to fall back on. That’s where we come in.”

Network of Community Ministries, simply “Network” for short, formed more than 20 years ago after local church-based charities realized they would be more effective if they combined forces.

“The churches noticed the same people were rotating from church to church looking for help,” Klein says. “So they decided to create a clearing house for all the neighborhood groups that wanted to help.”

Today, Network is an alliance of churches, synagogues, civic organizations and companies. The group receives no United Way or government funding for any of its operations — which includes a food bank that doles out 40,000 pounds of food per month; a school supplies closet that helps about 1,000 students per year; and a free health clinic for uninsured children, teens and senior citizens. About 95 percent of the neighbors they help are living below the poverty line, and all of them live in zip codes that feed into Richardson ISD, which includes a good chunk of Lake Highlands.

While Network has been helping neighbors in need for two decades now, Klein is quick to point out that the group is now taking a new — and very different — approach to its charity.

“We have always been in the business of making a difference, but before we were making a difference between hungry and not hungry, or getting rent paid or not paid. Now, however, we are in the business of educating and helping these people to become self-sufficient.
“When a person comes in here and says they can’t pay their rent, that’s not a problem — it’s a symptom. It’s our job to find out what that’s a symptom of and help cure it with education.”

Part of that education includes financial counseling and referring people to additional services that can help, plus plans are in place to eventually offer free classes.

But none of Network’s work would be possible without its 350 volunteers, such as Lake Highlands resident Frankie Meripol, an 81-year-old retired nurse who has been serving with the group for nearly a decade.

“I see the all the people who are in need right here in Lake Highlands, and I just want to help. I guess the nurse in me just comes out,” she says. “Several of the churches in Lake Highlands help in small ways, but this the biggest charity servicing our neighborhood. And we’re not just helping, we’re also empowering people.”

Right now, Meripol and other volunteers are gearing up for one of Network’s biggest events: the Santa toy drive, which serves about 1,500 neighborhood kids per year.

“So many parents can’t buy the Christmas presents they’d like to for their kids, but that’s where we try and step in. These families deserve to have a happy holiday, no matter what their financial status is.”

NETWORK OF COMMUNITY MINISTRIES SANTA TOY DRIVE
when/ Saturday, Nov. 1 through Saturday, Dec. 22; drop off donations Monday through Thursday This group has a soft spot for neighbors who have fallen on hard times — especially during the holidays from 9 a.m.-6 p.m., or Friday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
where/ 741 S. Sherman (between Belt Line and Spring Valley near Central Expressway)
what/ Call the Santa line at 972.234.5505 to find kids to sponsor, or drop off new, unwrapped items such as infant to adult-sized sweatshirts, books, stuffed animals, dolls, sports equipment, art supplies, educational toys, board games, toy trucks and cars, and handheld electronic games in the $10-15 range; bikes, skateboards and rollerblades aren’t accepted because of injury liability.
what else/ Monetary donations also are welcome because if the toy supply runs out, volunteers will need to buy more.
for more information/ visit thenetwork.org

The Network of Community Ministries’ food bank also needs food and personal care items. Drop off donations Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m.-6 p.m., or Friday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at 741 S. Sherman.