by Aaron Layman
Lying on the outskirts of Vinton’s downtown, Manna Ministries has become one of the best forces in providing support for the working poor in the Roanoke Valley. Aided by a number of churches and commercial donors, Manna delivers necessary items to over 640 people every Thursday. On May 14, many volunteers and over 30 sponsors will join together to put on Mannathon, a 5K/8K run and gathering to benefit Manna Ministries’ efforts. (Fallon Park, 9am; late sign-ups for either run that day ends about a half hour before race time.)
Manna Ministries began in 1996 as a unnamed food bank warehouse, meant to provide sustenance for those in need. In 2004, they moved down to their current Walnut Ave. location and took on the name Manna Ministries after a suggestion by a local youth group. The organization has grown to 100 volunteers who work behind the scenes to provide for the poor. Seven different youth groups and fifteen churches from different denominations come together to distribute goods. Manna’s Ed Wyatt, the program director, is quick to note the ecumenical nature of their efforts, which unites Catholics, Baptists, Wesleyans and Methodists, among others.
“Instead of serving their own denominations, they serve God.”
Thursdays at Manna starts at 5:30 with “manna” in its most literal form. Different churches bring in food such as hot dogs and goulash to feed those waiting in a staging area with couches, dinettes and recliners donated by Grand Home Furnishings. Wyatt says this allows those waiting for assistance to get out of the poor weather; it also opens the gate for Manna volunteers to create more fellowship with the community. “[For a] lot of people that come in here, this is their night out where they get their interaction with a lot of people.”
Recipients register and receive cards marking the number of members in their family. Shelves of books are part of a ministry aimed at providing children with reading material. Wyatt, who says the program has grown significantly in the past 2 or 3 years, stresses the importance: “If we can get just one kid reading that wouldn’t be otherwise, it’s going to make a big difference in their lives.” They also try to give each child a toy to “let them know that somebody cares” along with a donated snack such as cakes or crackers.
Near the bookshelves lies the “country store” section where people can get shampoo, diapers, cleaning supplies and other items that often can’t be bought on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) programs. Area dentists have helped out before with donating toothpaste and toothbrushes to the program. Often, says Wyatt, “it’s easier for people to give something tangible” rather than funds. In the “Clothes Closet” families can pick out five donated clothes items per person in sizes ranging from babies through preteens up to adults.
One of the most important contributions of Manna Ministries are the food boxes they provide to families. Larger families sometimes get extra meat and they provide eggs, bread and cheese. While much of the food comes donated from the USDA FeedAmerica program, Manna often supplements their supplies by buying at a reduced rate from partners such as Super Dollar Grocery Store in Vinton. Coke also provides both financial aid and boxes to carry items in. They also provide pet food donated by the SPCA that’s bagged using a sorter donated by Southern States.
Wyatt makes it clear that Manna’s aid is not meant as a handout but rather a “hand-up” to the working poor: “When people come here and we serve them, they leave with their dignity intact.” He estimates that 50% of those who come to Manna seeking aid only need it once or twice.
One of the people aiding in this hand-up is Susan Willard. While her husband Ron and other members of her family had been volunteering down at Manna, she often hadn’t been able to make it down to give out food and other items. Looking at an alternative way to help, she considered Manna’s financial needs and came up with the Mannathon 5K/8K Run to help their finances.
The race will begin at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, May 14th in at Fallon Park and all proceeds will go to Manna’s services. After awards are distributed for the race, a festival-style party in the park will feature food, games and entertainment.
For more information, go to mannathon.wordpress.com.