On April 10, 1979, an enormous tornado devastated Wichita Falls, flattening a huge portion of the town. With hundreds of families homeless, area churches and the National Council of Churches banded together to bring hope and healing. Interfaith Disaster Service was created to help families in the rebuilding of homes. According to Interfaith Ministries history, it was a first for the city and churches as there had been no previous cooperation across denominational and faith lines.
In October 1981 when rebuilding was complete, those serving shoulder to shoulder decided to keep the cooperative spirit alive. Twenty-five churches pledged to support the creation of Interfaith Ministries, Inc. (IMI) with the purpose of having a central location whereby people could receive assistance. This would eliminate families having to go church to church for different assistance, allow congregations to pool their resources for greater impact, and reduce the duplication of services.
Today, almost 35 years later, Director of Services, Byron Francois said, “We have become the hub of help and we deal with the bulk of assistance in the area. We offer assistance with utility bills, mortgages, medicine and have a food pantry averaging 4,000 pounds a month—all with three staff members. We rock and roll!” And the number of supporting and involved churches has grown to over 70.
Combining Resources for Impact
Partner churches of IMI provide the bulk of financial and food donations for IMI. “In our history, we have not received any state or government funding and it will continue to be that way. We do good work and try to be good stewards of what we have. We are respected in the community and well funded. We take that to mean we are doing the right thing and God blesses us for that,” said Francois. Churches of all denominations and sizes are a part of IMI’s network of good. Francois continued, “Churches who give us $2 or $3 a month matter just as much to us as those who can give $10,000.”
The churches do more than support IMI financially; they provide many of the volunteers who help with everything from interviewing families needing assistance to food distribution and even language translation. In 2014 they had 97 volunteers who contributed almost 8,000 hours of time.
According to Francois, nearly all of the benevolence requests that are made to churches get funneled through to IMI. “In this community, clients can go to the churches (for assistance), but they are most often going to refer them right to us because they partner with us to do this work,” he said. According to Francois, this allows the churches to focus on growing their ministries. It also gives clients a wider network of assistance.
Offering a Hand Up
In an effort to better support clients and communicate with churches and other helping organizations, IMI formed the Wichita Falls Interagency Network in December 2012. This network uses the CharityTracker online database to send out bulletins and alerts to one another as well as share client data and run reports. They have 36 active agencies using the system. “What we do in CharityTracker is for the community and the client. By sharing information, we can see the progression of a client, where he or she is going and what they are receiving. This also helps us cut down on duplication of services,” said Francois.
Byron Francois, Director of Services at Interfaith Ministries If a client comes back a third time, Francois said he can go deeper into conversation with him or her. “I talk about their finances and can refer them to other agencies that can help. For example, Catholic Charities is now on our network and I can refer someone to them for budgeting and I know that Catholic Charities will follow a client for a whole calendar year.” Other times, referrals might be made for mental health services or employment assistance. Francois continued, “Nobody is frustrated by the requests of the people who want to get help, but we do want to be good stewards of our resources. We, at Interfaith Ministries don’t support entitlement and all of us on staff use our own life experiences to guide us with clients.”
Prior to having the CharityTracker system, Francois said there were a lot of emails going back and forth between agencies, which was inefficient. “Information now gets out much quicker and neater and goes where it is supposed to go. CharityTracker gave us a way to house all the information and cut down on all the emails, which could get a little long in the tooth!”
Bringing CharityTracker to Wichita Falls
Getting multiple agencies and churches to utilize the same system is no small task. How did IMI implement such a community-wide system? “Well, when agency and church leaders realized we at IMI were going to pay for it, everybody loved it!” joked Francois.
While IMI does fund CharityTracker for their community, the most important principle they applied to starting the network was to start with the willing. They didn’t wait to have everyone on board before using the system. “We started our network with just one other church and it was just the two of us for about eight months,” said Francois. From that small start and months of a good track record, IMI and the other church were able to show just how easy the system was to use for recording data, running reports and communicating with one another. “Now CharityTracker has caught on like wildfire here. Any new pastor or organization that gets their 501c3 status immediately wants to come on board and be a part of our network,” said Francois.
In 2014, Wichita Falls citizens experience yet another natural disaster; this time a massive flood. With CharityTracker already operational and churches already working together, Francois said, “We were able to communicate well and even allow the United Way to access the system and add 15 users and have their clients become our clients.”
Reporting Success and Opportunities
One benefit of using the system to collaborate is the ability to track their collective assistance. “Since we have two different service counties, we can run county reports once a month or quarter. We can track the dollars that have been distributed and even break it down by zip code. We can also separate our data by churches to give us an idea where people are being referred from,” explained Francois.
Organizationally, IMI uses CharityTracker to run monthly reports for their board and donors of how many new clients came in and what they received. “Another thing we track is whether or not our clients are attending church anywhere. While it is not an exact science, we have noticed and reported to our churches that we used to see 70% of clients attending church somewhere. Today, that number as more like 50%. So, there are a lot of unchurched people out there.”
While IMI doesn’t try to evangelize in their agency, they do inform clients that there are multiple churches they could have the opportunity to pick from. Francois said, “We try to introduce them to Christ through our giving and let them know they can definitely find somewhere to park themselves in church on the weekend!”
Krista Petty serves as Community Connector for Simon Solutions Inc, writing case studies and facilitating capacity-building webinars. She is also a speaker, trainer and writer with a background in missions, equipping volunteers, and community collaboration. She resides in Spirit Lake, Iowa with her husband, Steve.