When people are making difficult choices between buying medications or feeding their families in Kilgore, Helping Hands of Kilgore lives up to its name.
Helping Hands was established in 1987 by community members who wanted to have a common place for people in need of food to go in Kilgore, said Ursula Plaisance, executive director. Plaisance said the comments she receives from clients assisted by Helping Hands make her job a blessing. She said clients are often facing desperate choices before they come in for services.
“The people are very thankful for the services because they lay awake at night wondering how they are going to feed their baby,” she said. “Our main goal is to help people with hunger. We would love to see hunger go away totally. Unfortunately, I think we are not going to see hunger go away for a while.”
Helping Hands serves the Kilgore Independent School District, where 71 percent of the students are in poverty. An average of 300 families come to the agency for help each month and 12 to 20 new families come in each month.
“A lot of misperception is that it’s the same families,” Plaisance said. “Some come a couple of times a year and some don’t come quite as often. They are eligible every 30 days or as the need arises, but it is such a blessing to the families. And if we can’t meet their needs, we can always find services to help them in Gregg County.”
Plaisance said Helping Hands also provides assistance other than food, including monetary support as available and assistance with prescriptions. In addition, Helping Hands assists people who need to sign up for Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Lone Star card or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Much of Helping Hands’ success is attributed to the strong volunteer base which helps the organization operate, Plaisance said. The Kilgore High School lifestyles class has helped in a variety of ways, including assembling children’s snack bags during their class period. In addition, there are 25 dedicated and committed volunteers who are amazing, she said.
“They are the heartbeat of Helping Hands. Without them, it would not be possible,” Plaisance said.
According to a fact sheet about Helping Hands, Kilgore — a community heavily dependent on the oil industry — was hit hard by the recession of the oilfield in the mid-1980s. The slow economy touched many who were normally employed. Pastors at First Baptist Church and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Kilgore identified the need for food assistance, and assistance with utilities and prescriptions as being the most urgent needs
Soon after discussions began, the Kilgore Ministerial Alliance formed the organization, involving all local churches. This allowed the churches to coordinate efforts and consolidate resources. In its beginning, Helping Hands operated under the nonprofit status of First Baptist Church.
In December 2003, Helping Hands entered into an agreement with East Texas Food Bank, taking the local pantry to a new level. In 2005, Helping Hands applied for its own nonprofit status and became more independent as a ministry.
Helping Hands is open from 9 a.m. to noon on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 201 S. Main St. in Kilgore, where it has been located since 2008.
On the second Monday of each month, Helping Hands has a communitywide produce drop, with 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables available from farmers from the 26 counties which operate under the East Texas Food Bank.
In addition to food, Helping Hands also offers a Cooking Matters class that includes food demonstrations and recipe cards, so clients can replicate the meals at their home. In April of 2018 the organization received a grant to install commercial shelving, so more foods could be put on display, including food with packaging information that helps clients make healthier food choices.
“We try to have a healthy pantry and those who have different lifelong illnesses feel so much better since we converted that,” Plaisance said. “Doctors are telling them their blood pressure is better now that they are not eating as much sodium. We don’t want them to have a sluggish lifestyle. We don’t always make the wisest choices, and it’s nice to have a place for clients who have not been exposed to these healthier choices.”
For more information about Helping Hands call (903) 984-1796. The organization’s website is under construction.