Vast areas with sparse populations face a huge challenge when it comes to providing food and other emergency services to people in need. But in the northern-most tip of Wisconsin – officially designated as “frontier area” by the U.S. Census Bureau – hundreds of volunteers are helping thousands of people. Local nonprofit The BRICK Ministries ties them all together, running four locations spread across Ashland and Bayfield counties – a 2,500-square-mile area with just 31,000 residents.
“Many times, people who need help start by asking their local church. That’s a big part of why we got started – local congregations realized that if they give people 50 bucks, that’s not going to go very far to that $500 utility bill, but if we pool our resources into a single agency, then we can have much greater capacity to meet that person’s needs,” said Liz Seefeldt, Executive Director of The BRICK Ministries.
Six church congregations came together to form the nonprofit agency in 2007, and now volunteers and referrals come from 19 member congregations, as well as a variety of non-member congregations and secular groups.
“We’re careful to never proselytize, and yet that special quality of letting people know that they are loved, that they are cared for, that they are respected, no matter where they are at in their lives has everything to do with who we are and how we treat everybody who walks through our doors,” Seefeldt said. “No matter which of our locations you go to, you’re going to feel that. No one here will blame you for being poor.”
The BRICK Ministries offers four locations to make it easier for people in far-flung parts of the Ashland-Bayfield area to reach their services. Each of the locations offers a food pantry using a combination of publicly-funded programs and local food donations. The Ashland headquarters also hosts a Benevolence Program that offers a variety of other assistance, such as vouchers toward thrift stores, bus passes, and emergency funding toward bills. Annually, the agency serves about 3,200 individuals from the area – 10 percent of the two-county population.
Free rent at the Ashland headquarters was an important factor in The BRICK Ministries’ ability to provide these services for over a decade. They were utilizing half of a warehouse space of a local family business. When the company’s patriarch died, his widow decided to sell the entire building to The BRICK. A $170,000 loan from IFF enabled the purchase – and more.
“Right now, we can only walk two households through our pantry at any given time – not because we don’t have the food, not because we don’t have the volunteers, but because we don’t have the space,” Seefeldt said. “Expanding our space will allow us to move our consumers through more quickly.”
The expansion will also allow for food-sorting areas, additional cold-storage units, private office spaces to consult with clients, a meeting room for volunteers, a new ramp for accessibility, better security, and additional restrooms – up from the one toilet currently available for the 60 households, plus volunteers and staff, that use the facility daily.
“Owning the property is going to really increase our ability to serve our community,” Seefeldt said. “That’s thrilling.”