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(Enlarge) McDaniel College student Karen Fisher comes by the St. Paul’s United Church of Christ occasionally to help serve the free meal that the church offers every Thursday. Volunteers say they have seen a slight increase in takers over the past few months. Photo by Brendan Cavanaugh

As need rises, group seeks 'code of conduct'

With church soup kitchens across Carroll County providing meals to more people than ever before, the Westminster Ministerium held a "Feeding Hungry People" summit last week, and ultimately formed a new task force to study the needs of Carroll's hungry -- and establish a code of conduct for kitchens.

Clergy and lay representatives from dozens of county churches and nonprofit organizations, along with county officials and city representatives including mayor Tom Ferguson, spent several hours at Westminster's St. Paul's United Church of Christ on Tuesday, Sept. 23, discussing the challenges faced by soup kitchens in the face of the current economy.

The Rev. Marty Kuchma, pastor of St. Paul's and principal organizer of the summit, said he and fellow ministerium members came up with the idea for the summit while setting the ministerium's annual mission -- which included a look at local hunger needs.

"When we scratched the surface and contacted some of the soup kitchens, it became clear that right now all these programs are feeling over stretched," Kuchma said.

Statistics recently cited by Jolene Sullivan, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, illustrate the growing need.

Sullivan, speaking at a roundtable discussion with the Board of County Commissioners, said the ESCAPE Ministries in South Carroll has seen a 75 percent increase in requests for assistance over last year.

Carroll Food Sunday, a nonprofit organization that raises money and collects food to feed the hungry, reports a 50 percent increase since this time last year.

Cathy Brown, a director of Shepherd's Staff, a Westminster-based Christian outreach ministry, attended the hunger summit, and said her organization has seen a similar surge.

"There is a steady core of people that we serve, but we're also seeing a lot of new people we've never seen before," Brown said.

In order to work together and serve their growing clientele, attendees agreed to form a volunteer task force to establish the uniform code of conduct.

The code of conduct is in response to what attendees said is the reality that some soup kitchen clients also suffer from mental health problems, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Though details of the code are not yet set, members discussed not only behavior of soup kitchen attendees, but also practices that volunteers should stick to to ensure safety.

Westminster Police Chief Jeffrey Spaulding also attended the summit, and offered a law enforcement perspective on the challenges presented by Westminster's homeless population, many of whom show up at soup kitchens.

Spaulding said his department has seen an increase in the number of transients who come to Westminster from outside the county to take advantage of charitable programs.

"Anecdotally, we have had interactions with homeless people from far afield (who came to Westminster) because of the range of services available here," Spaulding said.

But as soup kitchens try to serve more people, Spaulding urged church officials and volunteers not to allow soup kitchen clients to have full access to church property.

He noted that Westminster's churches have occasionally been victimized by crimes such as malicious destruction of property, theft and breaking and entering.

"You have to think about the safety of your soup kitchen clients and your congregation," the chief added.

But he said that has not been a big problem yet. Spaulding distributed a summary of calls for service his department has received from Westminster's five church soup kitchens. They totaled fewer than 20 between Jan. 1, 2007 of last year and Sept. 18, 2008. Most of these were for assault, disorderly conduct, domestic disputes and intoxicated individuals.

"There have not been a lot of calls at these facilities," Spaulding said. "You're doing a pretty good job."

The Rev. Walter Peters, pastor at Westminster's First Presbyterian Church and co-organizer of the summit, said the three-hour discussion gave members of the ministerium plenty of food for thought in trying to address the need.

"This gives us all an opportunity for closer cooperation among soup kitchens across the county so we can do better job at working together and coordinating the various services that our soup kitchen clients need and referring them to the right places to get those services," Peters said.

For more information on the Westminster Ministerium, e-mail The Rev. Marty Kuchma at pastor@stpauls-ucc.org.


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