Manna House struggling to survive

Thanksgiving and Christmas food give-a-ways cut

mvoorhis@sierrastar.comNovember 19, 2013 

To squelch local rumors rapidly spreading regarding Manna House, Troy West, volunteer director from 1992 to 2006 and current board member, emphatically said, "We've been here 31 years, have helped a lot of people, and we're not closing. But I'm going to be honest with you, we're in a financial crunch and can use any extra money."

This non-profit organization, which has been a beacon of light and hope to thousands of Mountain Area residents for decades, now finds itself on a slippery slope and in dire need of community support and assistance.

Figures given by volunteer treasurer, Suzanne Harvey, indicated donations in 2012 totaled nearly $97,000 — this year, to date, donations total only $34,000.

"This is the lowest donations have been in the nearly seven years I've been treasurer," Harvey said.

At the most recent Mountain Ministerial Association meeting, current Manna House Director Tom Nicolulis, stood and walked around the lengthy conference table three times, gently touching each board member's back as he did.

"I'm just a small voice crying out in the wilderness," said Nicolulis, "and my plea is to let this be Manna House month, where during each service, a second offering is passed amongst the congregations solely for our benefit."

Most Mountain Area residents presume Manna House provides only donated food to those in need, however, that is not the case.

In reality, Manna House currently owes $8,600 to just one wholesale food provider and has spent $33,000 so far this year to purchase food for those in emergency need. And therein lies the rub. "We're an emergency food and clothing bank," reminded Nicolulis, "but how do we decide whether there's an actual emergency or not?"

Facing empty shelves on a near-daily basis, keeping the pantry stocked becomes a costly ordeal, especially with some families returning month-after-month, year-after-year.

"Emergency is the key word here," emphasized Nicolulis. "We finally made a rule that families can come to Manna House every two months for food. When they show up for food over and over, we ask what their emergency is and they say they aren't working. Well, they haven't worked in six years, so what's the emergency?"

"If people are coming in year-after-year, we're enabling them," observed West. "It becomes obvious that they're just using us to supplement their food supply."

Still, Nicolulis admits their hands are tied.

"If people say they're in need, what are we going to do ... ask for their income tax return? We just have to say it's God's food and let them have it."

In 2006, Manna House served 10,339 adults and children — this number steadily increased each succeeding year and more than doubled by 2012, with 25,762 served. In total, from 2006 through 2012, an estimated 141,285 community members have sought assistance from Manna House (no numbers are available yet for 2013). Of that number, less than 1% are homeless.

Those who take advantage know who they are. Others utilize Manna House services as it was intended, as a resource during those tougher times.

One woman in her mid-50s, who wished to remain anonymous, has been coming to Manna House for three years, on an emergency need basis only.

"My husband has many medical problems and we have many medical bills. I only come in when I need extra help," she said, "usually about once a year."

Another women, a 27-year-old single mother of two, who also wished to remain anonymous, said "I'm on welfare and have been coming in for food once or twice a year, but only when I get in a bind."

With the numbers in need growing, food flying off the shelves and dwindling donations, it has become all to apparent that change is warranted.

"We're just not the same entity that we used to be," explained Nicolulis, "and we need to find a different way of doing things."

Manna House board members reacted quickly, and after thoughtful deliberation, painful decisions were made. As a result, the more costly items, such as hamburger, which runs about $2,700 every two-three months, and tuna which runs $192 weekly for five cases, will be eliminated.

More immediate is the decision that Manna House will no longer offer Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas give-a-ways. However, the Christmas Toys for Tots event, where Manna House is transformed into a mini, magical Santa's toy shop, will continue.

For one concerned Mountain Area resident, who requested that her name be withheld, this is completely unacceptable. She has made donations to Manna House for many years, and was more than troubled after a recent visit.

"I went in there and was appalled. Everyone was talking about no Thanksgiving or Christmas give-away because of lack of funds. This is very upsetting news to me. Manna House is such a vital part of this community ... there just has to be someone or some business willing to step up to help."

Manna House, an all-volunteer entity, was founded in 1982 as an extension of the Mountain Ministerial Association by Reverend Paul Hansen, Gary Cooper and Bert Greenwood. Its purpose was to provide a Christian emergency food and clothing pantry as an expansion to church pantries.

With respect to the organization's future, Nicolulis emphasized, "We need to stay open, we need to supply food and we need to continue offering comfort to those in need with dignity."

Manna House can be found on Facebook and donations, which are tax deductible, can be made through PayPal. Typically, Mountain Area residents donate heavily from November through December, during the holiday season, but Manna House ministers to those in need of basic living supplies throughout the year.

"It (break-ins) makes your heart sink. We would like to get to talk to these people and let them know that grace abounds and … if they want food we'll give it to them. We know that good prevails in Oakhurst."

— Tom Nicolulis

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