County social workers in particular have a delicate dance to do — to steer those in need toward help, even if that help is being offered by a religious group, without appearing to condone a particular religion.
“There are a lot of needs that our programs simply do not supply,” said Ira Dove, director of the Haywood County Department of Social Services. “The nonprofits that we have partnered with have provided a great safety net for our community.”
As a family waits for food stamps to come through, a DSS will often refer them to food pantries and soup kitchens — many of them run by churches — where they can get help in the meantime. When people can’t afford heating oil, yet don’t meet the poverty cut-off for state and federal help, a DSS once again points them toward church groups.
Referrals like these, including those that are faith-based, are routine. Especially since most who seek Medicaid, food stamps or other assistance from a DSS often need more than just that one thing — they could use job training, counseling or clothing.
Haywood DSS keeps a list of outside groups, both secular and non-secular, that pick up the slack with supplemental services.
But it can have its pitfalls.
Haven Keener of Clyde recently complained after county DSS workers referred her to Lifeworks, a Christian-centered life skills and employment training program run by seven Baptist churches in the county. Keener said she felt pressured to attend the 28-week program, which includes strong messages of faith, when she applied for assistance at DSS.
“They are forcing girls to go to this,” said Keener, who was applying for Work First, financial assistance for low-income jobless people, typically a couple of hundred dollars a month at most.
DSS officials said that is not the case, however. It could have been a misunderstanding.
Those getting Work First aid indeed must show an effort on their end to improve their lot — whether it’s looking for work, taking classes or going through a program like Lifeworks.
But it doesn’t have to be Lifeworks. Similar life and job skills training are offered at Haywood Community College or the Division of Workforce Solutions (formerly known as the Employment Security Commission.)
Donna Lupton, a social work program administrator at Haywood DSS, said they usually provide clients with all these options. But sometimes the other options don’t fit with someone’s schedule or transportation.
“It’s on a case-by-case basis, and a lot of things come into play,” Lupton said. “If someone was recommended to go to Lifeworks, it might be that that’s what was open during the hours that they were available.”
DSS social workers regularly recommend Lifeworks to Work First clients, said Samantha Ledford, head of Lifeworks.
But, “It is their choice whether they want to come or not,” Ledford said.
Lifeworks teaches them how to get and keep a job, communication and listening skills, how to create a budget — skills aimed at breaking generational poverty and becoming a self-sufficient member of society.
Along the way, Ledford incorporates biblical context and teachings, which to her is part and parcel to helping people get their life together and on the right track.
“We want to open up the door and say ‘There is a whole world out there,’” Ledford said.
Because it is a private organization, Lifeworks has the right to incorporate Christian teachings into its classes, and some who join the program may welcome the religious themes.
DSS had received a complaint of its own after Keener came away with the impression Lifeworks was a pre-requisite to qualify for assistance. The case highlights the precarious line social workers must walk when explaining the options.
“We do work with faith-based community programs, and they have been very good partners over the years,” Dove said.
But, DSS also works with secular groups such as Mountain Projects and the Division of Workforce Solutions, Dove said, meaning people seeking aid are not without options.
Steeped in faith
While DSS and government agencies can’t push religious themes in conjunction with aid, faith-based groups can. Many, however, don’t.
While the Bible talks about spreading God’s word, it also emphasizes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and comforting the afflicted — no matter who they might be.
Haywood Christian Ministry, a nonprofit that offers heat, rent, electric, food, clothing and medication assistance, has a strict ‘services first’ policy. Only after the person is helped will volunteers at the nonprofit ask ‘Would you like me to pray with you?’
“We help anybody who walks through the door,” said Rusty Wallace, assistant director of Haywood Christian Ministry. “The prayer has to come by mutual consent after the service is offered.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that it shies away from its faith-based roots. Area chaplains take turns sitting in the waiting room of Haywood Christian Ministry in case someone wants to talk. But, they don’t force religion on those they are helping — or make them feel they must pray to get assistance from Haywood Christian Ministry, Wallace said.
The same is true for the Waynesville chapter of the Salvation Army.
“We try not to push (prayer) on anybody, but we are here if they need us,” said Maria Perez, who works at the local Salvation Army. “Not everybody is comfortable with that. They can come to us for help even if they don’t want us to pray for them.”
Although Christian teachings are part of the deal when going through Lifeworks job and life skills training, additional Bible study is optional. The women in the program are assigned a personal mentor who will hold a Bible study with her if she chooses.
“That is something that we want them to do, but that is their choice. We don’t push anything on anybody,” Ledford said. “We are here to walk there beside them.”