CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Southern author River Jordan's message at The Caring Place's annual fundraising banquet was clear:
The people who seek assistance from the ecumenical Christian nonprofit are not strangers. They have faces, names and stories.
"These people are not removed from you," said Jordan.
More than 300 people came out to support The Caring Place at the banquet, held at Lee University. The event's theme was "Stranger at My Door."
"They're not strangers to us," said Toni Miles, director of organization advancement for The Caring Place. "They all have names to us because we open the door. So in this community, these are our neighbors and these are our family members and we do not want them to continue to be strangers to you."
Jordan, who described herself as an introvert who considered her spirituality a private matter, spoke of a very open spiritual journey she found herself taking a few years ago.
She documented that journey in her book, "Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit," evolved from a resolution she made to silently pray for people she didn't know.
During that odyssey, Jordan said, she soon began talking to the people she had picked out and soon learned that the prayerful connections were much bigger than herself.
That connection to those in need is what The Caring Place is about, she said.
The organization is not limited to feeding and clothing those in need, said Reba Terry, the nonprofit's executive director.
The Caring Place seeks to meet the social and spiritual needs of the community, not just the physical ones, she said.
Through these means, the agency's worker serve as "change agents empowering people to make lasting change in the lives" instead of offering temporary relief, said Terry.
From its Wildwood Avenue location, The Caring Place has distributed 179 tons of food to nearly 3,500 families, 7.5 tons of clothing to 3,100 families and 267,000 diapers to 650 children, organization officials said.
The Caring Place recently celebrated the second anniversary of its Sac Pac program, which provides take-home meal packages for more than 400 elementary students in 11 schools in Bradley County, said Terry.
Neighbors in Need, which has provided financial counseling to 800 families, has received a boost through Cleveland Utilities' Round Up program, she said. The voluntary customer-funded initiative rounds utility bills up to the next dollar and channels the difference to Neighbors in Need.
The organization also provides social work services and spiritual counseling, she said.
"Our staff and volunteers are keenly aware that providing tangible needs is just the means by which we get to share God's love with others," she said. "We are place of refuge and a place of hope."
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.