A volunteer loads food for the Feed Lake Highlands program: Jun Ma

A volunteer loads food for the Feed Lake Highlands program: Jun Ma

solutionsseries_logoLate afternoon the day after New Year’s, pedestrians bundled in coats and scarves enter The New Room, a small construct next door to CiCi’s Pizza on Skillman Street near Royal Lane. Some 30 minutes later they leave with a bag of groceries, informational pamphlets on health care services and financial literacy classes and, in some cases, a Christmas toy or a few pieces of clothing.

“It is proof that there are still people who care about you,” says 48-year-old Sally Guinn, a grandmother who has lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her sister and five children since losing her nursing assistant job. “You do have to want help, and you have to be responsible enough to get it, but these people are so kind, they just give you that hope.”

“You do have to want help, and you have to be responsible enough to get it, but these people are so kind, they just give you that hope.”

The New Room, home of the Feed Lake Highlands food distribution (as well as after-school programs for children and weekly worship services), is a satellite of Lake Highlands United Methodist and is located in an area known by police for its problems. No. 13 on the Dallas Police Department’s crime hotspots list, the Skillman-Royal area is home to about 10,000 people. About 70 percent of them live in the area’s low-rent apartment communities. Police have attributed most of the area’s crime to the population density.

Feed Lake Highlands: Jun Ma

Feed Lake Highlands: Jun Ma

That didn’t scare the associate pastor of Lake Highlands UMC, Pamela Clark, who first took Sunday services into those apartment communities in the mid-1990s. It was there, while delivering a sermon at the Sonora Palms Apartments, that she met Norman Madawo and Edgar Moyo, immigrants from Zimbabwe who today are spiritual leaders at The New Room.

During the Feed Lake Highlands food delivery days — a collaboration with the North Texas Food Bank and Crossroads Community Services — both the Rev. Clark and Madawo, along with other volunteers, can be found washing plates, stacking supplies or unclogging the toilet — whatever needs doing in the oldish building, they say.

Clark still laughs about that first meeting.

“These two guys came in, sat in the back. Afterwards I tried asking some questions — about their families and such. I was curious about what they were doing there. Turns out they were checking us out. They wanted to make sure we were doing things right before bringing their families. I guess we were, because they later brought their families.”

Madawo and Moyo were friends in Zimbabwe, where they practiced Catholicism, Madawo explains. In the United States the Catholic services were different, he says. During one Catholic mass, a fellow churchgoer pulled Madawo out of the communion line and asked him, in so many words, if he was sure he should be there, Madawo says.

“I guess this person thought that since I did not look like everyone else I was not Catholic. That isn’t really what bothered me. It was more an overall sense that it wasn’t what I was looking for, for my family,” he says, in perfect English but with a heavy Zimbabwean accent.

One must be careful when leading your family into a church, he explains, because a wrong move is like “throwing your family to the wolves.”

“There are so many places called churches that aren’t really churches,” he says.

Gradually Madawo, Moyo and their respective wives and children became essential members of the satellite church, welcoming new churchgoers, leading services and study groups and helping to found The New Room, Clark says.

“There are so many places called churches that aren’t really churches.”

“We work well together,” Clark says. She explains that each member of the church has certain gifts. Madawo is a community pastor (an un-ordained pastor serving under Clark’s direction) and certified lay speaker. Being male, he can relate to the male members of the church in a way she cannot, she says.

“I 100-percent thought I was going to sit there in the back row forever,” Madawo says with a laugh.

Clark says Madawo is the type of person who “cannot not help” when help evidently is needed.

Sally Guinn, the aforementioned out-of-work grandmother, says she was having pizza at CiCi’s with her boyfriend — he cleans windows for a living, she says — when they saw a pamphlet for a credit-counseling class at The New Room.

Guinn says she was injured in an accident, lost her job as a nursing assistant and has been living with various family members ever since. She took out loans in an effort to return to school for a nursing degree. But Guinn had committed to caring for her grandchildren, nieces and nephews in return for a place to live, and she soon realized school would have to wait. She was stuck with more debt, no degree and no job, she says.

So she and her boyfriend — they eventually plan to marry — attended the class. While there, Guinn learned about Feed Lake Highlands and signed up for the program.

Churchgoers gather at The New Room in the Skillman-Royal area of Lake Highlands: James Coreas

Churchgoers gather at The New Room in the Skillman-Royal area of Lake Highlands: James Coreas

“It was easy. I showed my proof of residency, filled out some paperwork, agreed to come at my assigned time.”

After picking up her first round of free groceries, she says, she began attending the Sunday worship service. “No. It is not required,” she says. “But I like it. I feel relaxed. I feel stronger when I come to the church.”

She brings her 11- and 10-year-old nephews. “They beg to come,” she says.

John Chappell is a freshman at Berkner High School who just joined The New Room youth group. When he and mom Denise show up to collect their January food, John immediately approaches community pastor Madawo, who is stacking items on a shelf, and offers to help.

“This place came along at the right time for us. It was a godsend,” Denise says. She recently left an “unhealthy relationship” and moved herself and John from Texarkana to the Beacon Hill Apartments.

“We were unanchored in this big old world, just me and John, and this is like a starting point for us, to get to know people.”

Despite being the only male and the only Berkner student in the youth group (the rest are Lake Highlands High School students) John, urged on by Denise, makes it a point to attend the twice-monthly teen gatherings, which offer social and spiritual activities.

Denise says her goal is to save money and buy a house.

Before Denise leaves, one of the ministry leaders, Jill Goad, hands her information about upcoming financial literacy classes offered at The New Room. Classes offered by Crossroads and other organizations are recommended but not mandated for Feed Lake Highlands clients. Topics include nutrition, parenting, home buying, managing emotions and a variety of others.

Denise Chappell promises to attend.

“We were unanchored in this big old world, just me and John, and this is like a starting point for us, to get to know people.”

Feed Lake Highlands runs smoothly, and recipients of the food seldom have to endure long lines or major inconveniences, but it doesn’t happen without dedicated volunteers. Gwen Crain, who is not a member of the church, volunteered after seeing something about The New Room on the news, she says.

“It was months after I saw it, and I decided I wanted to help. I couldn’t remember the church associated with it, so I called Lake Highlands Presbyterian. Wrong church.”

But they knew she was looking for The New Room by way of Lake Highlands United Methodist.

Goad points out, citing Crain, that this is a community organization, not just a church effort. That the entire neighborhood suffers when people are hungry and that any member of the neighborhood — religious or not, member of LHUMC or another church — could become part of the solution.

Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, retirees, moms with children old enough to work — they all have a role. Some interview new clients, others pick up, transport, sort and deliver the food. Katy Jensen, a LHUMC member and registered nurse, attends each Feed Lake Highlands distribution day and offers some type of health service. This time she is taking blood pressures.

“One man who was here a little while ago had very high blood pressure. He says he doesn’t have a doctor or insurance, so I gave him information on Healing Hands Ministries, where he can get help for free, right down the street. He didn’t know about it,” Jensen says.

The main goal, says Madawo, is to not let anyone who walks through those doors slip through the cracks. “Some of them have spent enough time feeling invisible,” he says. “Here, they will find love. They are wanted.”

The solutions series
Monthly in 2014, the Advocate will share a story about people in our neighborhood struggling with poverty, unemployment or other disadvantages, and we will examine efforts made to improve those difficult situations. We also will write about individuals and groups dedicated to making a difference. If you have a story to share, email chughes@advocatemag.com and write “solutions” in the subject line.