In a city with a poverty rate that’s almost double the rest of the state, knowing where your next meal is coming from can be an everyday concern.
So, in 2009, local business professionals along with pastors and ministers in Marshall began talking about creating an organization to help people in poverty move toward stability in their lives. In July 2012, the doors to Mission Marshall opened.
“It’s unusual to be that committed to a course of action. They used that time to meet with other nonprofits and experts in the field,” said Misty Scott, executive director of Mission Marshall. “This really gave us a head start at being successful instead of opening the doors and hoping for the best.”
The poverty rate in Marshall is 24 percent, compared with 13 percent statewide. Scott said a call to action was needed as no one in the city wants that to be what Marshall is known for. Reasons for high poverty in the area include the ebb and flow of the oil and gas industry, to which much of the area’s job opportunities are tied. Marshall also is a rural area, which makes it harder for people to get around for assistance.
Mission Marshall is not a homeless shelter, although it does refer clients to Marshall’s homeless shelter. My Friend’s House serves up to 11 people at a time. Mission Marshall’s services are designed to prevent someone from having to seek shelter and remain in their own home.
One of the main ways Mission Marshall helps is through a food pantry that helps people who are struggling financially stretch the money they have. The pantry is set up like a small grocery store to provide clients with as much dignity as possible as they shop for their family, Scott said. Depending on a family’s size, clients can get between 25 to 40 items per month, including stable milk — which does not require refrigeration, canned fruit, and frozen meat. In addition, there are nutritious bonus items provided each week, such as onions, sweet potatoes, golden beats and frozen potatoes.
“We love that they get to make the choices for themselves,” Scott said. “When the guests pick their food, we know that they purchase what they like, and then we know what to purchase to serve our community in that way.”
Mission Marshall purchases the bulk of the food for its pantry from the East Texas Food Bank in Tyler. In 2018, the nonprofit organization bought 251,000 pounds of food. An additional 54,000 pounds of food was donated. Every month about 900 people are served, with 80 percent of them from Marshall and the remainder from outside Marshall.
People do have to fill out paperwork to participate in the program, but it is minimal, Scott said.
Appearances can be deceiving when it comes to people who need assistance from Mission Marshall. Someone might drive a certain car to the food bank that might appear to mean the person doesn’t need help. Scott said, though, that things could have changed dramatically in that person’s life since buying that car, as it might now be paid for or was bought when that person was married.
“There are preconceived notions about people who need assistance, but the beautiful thing is when we get to talk to them it crushes preconceived notions,” she said. “You see the richness of them as people. I get chill bumps when I talk about it.”
Scott said sometimes people who use the pantry are viewed as being too lazy to work, but one of the clients who uses Mission Marshall has been working and using the pantry for the past six years to make ends meet.
“She has now been promoted and she has a child and she is in school,” Scott said. “She is not lazy. She is not coming into the pantry because she is not willing to work. I always think of her because she is not the stereotype of someone we think of.”
Men using the pantry usually tug at Scott’s heart because the need for assistance puts them in unfamiliar territory.
“When you see a man come in and need assistance for his family he is tender,” she said. “He has always taken care of his family and it grieves him to come in and ask for help. We give him the dignity to allow him to select his food. It’s easy to say what kind of car is he in, why he needs help, but you have to talk to them to find out their situation.”
In addition to the pantry, Mission Marshall provides a financial literacy class, through banks that teach about the importance of savings, for instance.
“We often tell people even for a middle-class person that if you have five crisis events that happen close enough together you will likely live in a poverty situation,” Scott said. “Our lives are fragile, and anyone can find ourselves in a situation we didn’t anticipate happening.”
Apart from serving adults with a pantry for food, Mission Marshall also targets literacy for children, as statistics show students who do not graduate and are not literate have a higher chance of living in poverty.
Scott said that Carlton Burris, a member of Mission Marshall’s administrative team and a pastor emeritus from Immanuel Baptist Church in Marshall, came up with the idea of giving bikes to children who were improving their literacy. Scott learned that if students had not learned to read by the third grade, it was unlikely they were going to be able to pick it up and their grades would be affected throughout school.
Read to Rides kicked off in the 2016-2017 school year, with 268 students earning bikes. In the 2017-2018 school year, 324 students earned bikes. The cost of the bikes and a helmet are $65.
“We are $8,000 away from our fundraising goal this year. People give money through private donors, individual donors and churches,” she said.
Brainstorm is another initiative of Mission Marshall that focuses on childhood literacy. Brainstorm is a program that pairs adult mentors from the community with second grade readers at Price T. Elementary to strengthen a child’s reading comprehension, decoding and critical-thinking skills.
Finally, Mission Marshall also participates in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which allows the Mission to pay $25 per child for a book to be sent each month to every child who signs up from birth to 5 years old. Overall, 516 students have graduated from that program since it began, which means 23,000 books have gone out into the community since 2014, Scott said.
“We know that a preschooler who is already excited about books because they are getting a book in the mail every month is going to have a preschool teacher who will have an easier time teaching them,” Scott said.