The Bible speaks frequently of the poor, imploring the righteous to honor God by serving the poor, never judging their circumstance or robbing them the opportunity for aid.

At Victoria Christian Assistance Ministry, about 75 volunteers are doing their part to keep area families in economic distress afloat.

“We hear it all the time, that families would not have been able to survive without the supplementary items offered at VCAM,” said board member and VCAM volunteer Lawrence Onken. “Our clients are truly appreciative of the support we give them.”

Onken, a board member for the past six years, said VCAM’s services are truly about relationships. Those who come in are “clients,” and the support they’re given – whether through the clothing store, basic needs and hygiene closet, financial assistance and gas vouchers or the in-house pantry – is intended to demonstrate dignity.

The customer choice pantry, for example, which is the main focus for VCAM, is unlike any other food pantry in the area.

When clients come in, they’re given an opportunity to shop for food items, picking and choosing from grocery store-like shelves.

“We try to help them understand the nutritional needs for their families and may suggest a few items to them, but we don’t dictate their choices,” Onken said, mentioning clients can come once a month for their customized selection of food items.

Other food pantries may offer pre-packed boxes, which are helpful and generous but may result in waste if the recipients don’t like some of the items in the box.

During summer months and around the holidays, Onken said the number of VCAM clients increases. Children are home more frequently, or more family may stay in the home for longer periods of time, meaning grocery bills and frequency of meals also increase. For families living paycheck to paycheck, these periods can create financial hardship.

VCAM services provide a host of options for those in need of supplementary service, including a clothes closet, hygiene items, prescription assistance, gas vouchers for out-of-town doctor’s appointments, and water and electric bill assistance, among many others.

Donations for items are accepted year-round, including monetary donations, but Onken said VCAM could use more baby, children’s and teen clothing as well as food donations.

“We can always use food and financial donations. We’re always trying to provide as much as we can to our client base,” Onken said.

VCAM director Marc Hinojosa said client need is on an upswing. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, some residents in the area moved away or were displaced and are now beginning to return to the area.

To accommodate clients better, Hinojosa helped launch VCAM Saturday, opening the nonprofit one Saturday a month to allow for as many people as possible to come in for assistance.

“Clients who can’t make it during the week because they have a job, or volunteers who can’t serve for the same reason, now have the option of coming on Saturday,” he said.

Client need is growing so rapidly, he said he’s considering next steps on a possible second location, perhaps on the north end of town.

“The building we’re in is beautiful, but it’s not designed for a general food pantry. So we work with it the best we can, but as we’re seeing more and more people, we’re looking at alternatives,” he said.

In September, VCAM will host its annual fundraiser, and they’re setting a goal this season to reach $15,000.

Anyone interested can purchase a $5 raffle ticket or six for $25 and be entered into a drawing to win a variety of gift cards ranging from $20 to $750, from H-E-B, The PumpHouse Restaurant, Tokyo Grill, Walmart, Target, Lowe’s and many more as well as other handmade items.

“We’ve printed 3,000 tickets and we’re hoping to sell all of them,” Onken said. Tickets can be purchased at VCAM with cash or card.

The drawing will be at noon Sept. 21. An open house event will precede the drawing, including refreshments and a walk-through of the nonprofit’s offerings.

“We know the clients who come into VCAM really need the help, and we’re doing everything we can to get them back on track,” Hinojosa said. “I tell our volunteers on a weekly basis, VCAM has grown my faith, but I still feel like I’m not worthy of the ministry. As a group, though, we make it what it is.”

Jennifer Preyss-Mathlouthi writes about religion and faith for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at jenniferpreyss.com, or on Twitter @jenniferpreyss.

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Jennifer Preyss-Mathlouthi is an award-winning faith writer and columnist.

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