2014-02-20 / News

God’s Marketplace expanding to help with abuse, mental issues

UGA graduate student

Dave McKelvey (left) and David Toburen stand with boxes of cereal in the God’s Marketplace food pantry. Dave McKelvey (left) and David Toburen stand with boxes of cereal in the God’s Marketplace food pantry. A local non-profit known for its food pantry and thrift store has tackled a new challenge: helping people with personal issues that can’t be fixed with a box of groceries. God’s Marketplace is opening a support center for county residents who need help coping with mental illness or substance abuse.

The center is easy to find because it’s at the feet of “the Big Man,” a local landmark standing at 724 E. Robert Toombs Ave. in Washington. Staff members at the center will also help low-income residents sign up for utility subsidies and search for work.

Chairman David Toburen hopes the support center will serve as a “one-stop shop for referral services, encouragement, and support of persons in our community.” The food pantry has been a resource for people in need since 2007 but Toburen has been searching for ways to “help people learn to fish,” as the old adage says.

Toburen decided to expand the ministry after a Wilkes County resident confided that he had almost committed suicide during the holidays. “It’s almost criminal that somebody gets out of a situation where they had rehab or probation and they’re so lonely that they’re ready to commit suicide,” Toburen said. “What are we in a society doing when that happens?”

Although Toburen took this as a sign that Wilkes County lacks adequate mental health services, it’s not clear that this is the case. People may be unhappy but they may not seek professional help.

In a national study, Wilkes County residents reported an average of 5.4 “poor mental health days” in the last 30 days – compared with 3.4 days for Georgians and 2.3 days nationwide. These are days when residents feel depressed, stressed or emotional.

Toburen emphasized that there is no regularly available mental health resource in the county and that the nearest outpatient clinic is 25 miles away in Thomson.

The Wilkes County Health Department confirmed that the Serenity Behavioral Health Systems clinic in Thomson is the only five-day-aweek public mental health clinic resource for Wilkes County. As part of its contract with the health district, Serenity counselors see clients in Washington two days each month.

“We used to be up there every day, and then due to, you know the [low volume of] clients and financial issues, we decided to go down to two days a month,” said Patti Stewart, outpatient director for Serenity Behavioral Health Systems. “There were a lot of different factors involved in that decision.” There weren’t enough clients to keep the doors open in Washington more than two days per month, she said.

There is a shortage of primary care doctors and clinics in Wilkes County, according to surveys at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But there is no lack of mental health care providers, according to data gathered in 2009 and again in 2013.

Even if statistics show that an adequate number of mental health professionals exists, that doesn’t mean that everyone is served. According to data collected by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 21 percent of adult Georgia residents report having inadequate social and emotional support.

Toburen has listened to the stories of Wilkes County residents and he believes the need is real, which is why the new God’s Marketplace support center is so important to him. He’s worked as a juvenile probation officer and as a high school assistant principal. He’s learned to recognize social conditions that cause people to cycle in and out of prison or rehabilitation.

“I’m beginning to see some of the men and women come back,” Toburen said. “But when they come back they come back with a ‘P’ on their forehead if they’re on probation, or they come in with a ‘D’ on their forehead if they’re a drug addict. And most people don’t want to talk to them – don’t want to deal with them.” The Support Center, he said, will welcome them all.

The God’s Marketplace Support Center will not replace groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, or personal counseling but it will serve as a resource that connects people to needed resources. Staff will also help people fill out applications for employment and for utility subsidies so that residents in poverty can keep the lights and the heat on.

Leading the Support Center will be Dave McKelvey, who moved to Washington in June 2013 and met Toburen through the Methodist Church. He’s been volunteering at the God’s Marketplace thrift shop but now looks forward to leading The Support Center. “I’m not a counselor,” says McKelvey, but he has 12 years of experience working with drug addicts and alcoholics through a Bible study program at the Salvation Army in Fort Myers, Florida.

Toburen and McKelvey are both formally retired, but “God doesn’t believe in retirement,” Toburen said. “We’ve been looking for it but we can’t find it in the Bible.”

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