Rescue Mission, Place of Grace goals merge

Two groups become one, focused on helping homeless

By Kevin Spradlin

* Place of Grace Rescue Mission website
* Place of Grace Rescue Mission Facebook page

Nearly 11 months to the today after the inaugural meeting of the Richmond County Rescue Mission, the organization is no more.

On Saturday, representatives of the group that gained its nonprofit status in March announced significant changes. Those changes, despite popular cynicism to the contrary that often is so accurate, are the byproduct of a partnership forged by knowing everyone has the best of intentions when it comes to helping the homeless in Richmond County.

Submitted photo  Chuck Thames, Dianne Raines, Rita Gibson, Amy Patrick McRae, Richard McRae, Linda Taylor, Gary Richardson, Ann Carr, Jimmy Warner and Merrielle Buckner.

Submitted photo
Chuck Thames, Dianne Raines, Rita Gibson, Amy Patrick McRae, Richard McRae, Linda Taylor, Gary Richardson, Ann Carr, Jimmy Warner and Merrielle Buckner.

Members of each group recently met together and “after discussing each of the organization’s visions, it was clear we were on parallel paths headed toward the same goal,” organization officials posted on the group Facebook page earlier this weekend. “Realized we could do so much more as a united team, we have now joined together to form ‘Place of Grace Rescue Mission.'”

Organization staff includes Richardson as executive director and Dianne Raines as outreach coordinator. The board of directors includes Chuck Thames as president, Linda Taylor as treasurer, Rita Gibson as secretary and members Rev. C.J. Smith, Rev. Jason Lutz, Ann Carr, Jimmy Warner, Johnny Martin, Merrielle Buckner and Michael Ussery.

The Baker House was not much more than a pile of rubble after an August 2013 fire — suspected arson which remains unsolved. The historic brick building operated by The Mental Health Society of Richmond County as the county’s lone homeless shelter and Rockingham’s only soup kitchen at the corner of South Hancock Street and Midway Road.

In the aftermath, A.B. Thompson, chairman of the society’s board of directors, attempted to work with city officials to repair or rebuild at the same location. In March, the Rockingham Board of Adjustment conducted a public hearing on the organization’s application for a conditional use permit. The CUP was needed because zoning had been implanted in the area — something that was lacking when The Baker House was first constructed.

The location was in the Highway Business (B-3) zoning area but had been grandfathered in the city of Rockingham’s Unified Development Ordinance. The fire, however, damaged more than 25 percent of the building — triggering the UDO’s requirement of the building being required to meeting all local ordinances and regulations. The hearing lasted more than four hours. Board members voted 5-0 to deny the conditional use permit based on three points: the negative affect on the health and welfare of the community, the decrease in value of adjacent properties, and if the rebuilt Baker House “would be in harmony with the surrounding area.”

Pastor Gary Richardson and Mark Joplin, meanwhile, banded together to form the Place of Grace tent ministry on property of Richardson’s New Life Church on Mill Road in East Rockingham — outside the limits of the city of Rockingham and under the purview of Richmond County government. The idea was to help the homeless successfully transition from being on the streets to being self-sustaining, productive members of society as quickly as possible, Joplin said.

That group was found to be in violation of county ordinances, and the Richmond County Board of Adjustment conducted a lengthy public hearing on Oct. 7. There was strong opposition to the tent ministry and concerns about loitering, public nudity, drunkenness, property values and more were expressed by neighboring residents. Board members voted 7-0 to give the tent ministry a grace period of sorts.

Tent city no more
Richardson, Joplin and others never seemed comfortable with the idea of a tent city. They called it a ministry — accurate enough, but also deflecting attention to the living conditions of the people they were supposed to be helping. The two men and other key volunteers never stopped searching for something better.

Earlier this month, Richardson announced a building had been acquired. At 559 Airport Road, a short walk or drive down from the tent ministry, Place of Grace leaders were able to secure a six-month lease, with an option to buy, for a shell building that would house up to 16 individuals. Richardson then issued a challenge to Richmond County churches and business owners: if each contributes a one-time $1,000 donation to the nonprofit organization, “that will pay for the building and operate that building for probably two or three years.”

That breaks down to $83.33 a month.

“Some churches can do more,” Richardson said.

Focus forward
The decision made to join forces strengthens volunteer efforts to help the homeless. The mission continues.

“We are currently housing 21 homeless people and have many pressing needs,” officials said. “We are in need of bunk beds, blankets, sheets, pillows, ‘gently used’ winter clothing (men’s and women’s), coats, gloves, toboggans, food, paper goods, drinks, cups, coffee, etc. Donations can be dropped off at our location at 559 Airport Road in Rockingham.”

Officials added that education — including high school equivalency exam preparation on site by a Richmond Community College instructor — as well as coaching in life skills, job skills and other training will soon start “as they begin heading down the path toward a brighter future.” There is concerted optimism in what seems, at times, a daunting effort.

“We are excited about the opportunities ahead to serve the less fortunate and this will be a total community effort,” officials said. “We need as many people to get involved as possible to make this dream a reality. If you are interested in helping, please stop by or send us your contact info.”

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