Jan. 25—Somerset Mayor Alan Keck called it a "God-sized dream."
Brenda Russell, the executive director for God's Food Pantry, told Somerset City Council members about the vision she has for transforming the former Palm Beach campus in downtown Somerset into a multi-agency facility to help the homeless and those in need within Pulaski.
"The vision for that building is actually for us to work with families who want to break the cycle of generational poverty," Russell told the council at Monday's meeting. "We don't just want to be a hand-out to the people in need in our community, we actually want to be part of the solution of changing their lives and the lives of their children."
Russell explained that around three years ago, the organization had the opportunity to open a redistribution center to give non-food items like clothing, toiletries and appliances to area non-profits to help those in need.
She said it came about in part because she was contacted with a service that could bring semi truck-loads worth of products here.
"My board was a little bit skittish about that whole idea. I said, 'We can either take this opportunity and run with it, or we can turn this opportunity away and let those goods go to another county for other people to serve other areas,'" Russell said.
They began in a warehouse in Ferguson, but the COVID pandemic meant some charities cut their outreach programs while items were still being shipped in. Rapidly running out of room for those items, Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority CEO Chris Girdler offered an overflow space in the old Palm Beach building.
Then, he offered to sell the building to God's Food Pantry.
She said she realized this would be a great opportunity that would be hard to pass up, although it would be a massive undertaking.
The project is currently in the planning phase, she said, with a timeline of getting the building up and running in 2026.
The building is in disrepair, she explained, and it might take up to $5 million to fix the roof, windows and flooring, as well as there being some possible asbestos issues to deal with.
However, Russell wasn't necessarily in front of the council to ask for money. Rather, she asked council members to support her as she worked her way up the chain of government officials and sought state and federal grant funds.
The ultimate plan is to move God's Food Pantry into that facility, as well as create a clothing center and a feeding center that could serve warm meals to those in need, no questions asked.
The rest of the space would be leased out to other partners that could create a center to help those in need, she said.
"We've already had multiple partners reach out to us interested in being a part of that vision," she said.
Those partners would offer services like life skills education, mental health services and physical health services, as well as possibly offer a place to have showers for the homeless and a way to give them a change of clothes.
Keck said he knew that such a project would be near and dear to her heart since she has participated in efforts to help the homeless before.
"It's a God-sized dream. ... It might be three or four or five years down the road, but we're grateful for your vision and your heart," he said.
Somerset resident David Townsend also spoke at city council, but addressed his first comments to Russell, thanking her for her efforts.
Poverty is something that he is involved in trying to help end, and Townsend said that, as with any community challenge, people should not necessarily ask "Are we doing enough?" Rather, they should ask, "Can we do more?"
Townsend also told council about a few awareness months that are coming up soon, including Social Worker Awareness Month in March, Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, and Mental Health Awareness Month in May.
Townsend said that all those community issues are connected.