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By Bill Lynch
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A sizable crowd had taken shape, as it usually does, on a recent Saturday morning in the parking lot of Trinity Episcopal Church, on 11th Street in Huntington.
Over near the street, a few women with kids in tow picked through heaps of old clothes. In the center of the lot, people milled past tables under open tents, collecting toothbrushes, tubes of toothpaste, crackers and single-serving containers of chocolate pudding. On the far wall, across from the church, they sat together, talking, laughing and eating breakfast out of Styrofoam boxes.
It looked a lot like a rummage sale.
But it wasn’t.
For the last nine years, every Saturday, rain or shine, area church and charitable groups have come together to help feed, clothe and provide basic necessities for the hungry, poor and homeless of Huntington and the surrounding area.
For the last six years, Marshall Medical School has come every third Saturday to help with basic medical needs, check blood pressure and vital statistics and refer patients for more advanced care.
An accurate count is hard to gauge, but on a lot of Saturdays they see a couple hundred people.
“A few less when it’s cold,” Larry Clark, a member of the Bikers for Christ motorcycle club, said.
The outreach program was started by Les Millman and Hillary Rowe, a couple of Clark’s employees at Clark Electronics International, a company in Huntington that sells and services marine electronics equipment.
“Nine years ago, Les and Hillary came to me and said they wanted to do a street mission,” Clark said. “They wanted to give out coffee and doughnuts down by the river.”
Clark thought it sounded like a great idea. So he put up the seed money, and the pair started pouring coffee and handing out doughnuts on Saturday morning from the back of Millman’s pickup truck.
After several months, Clark said he got involved more and thought maybe they could do more than doughnuts.
“I thought we could just do breakfast,” he said.
Clark went to the local Sam’s Club to take a look around, but he didn’t have an actual plan.
One of the sales associates stopped him, asked him if he was lost.
Clark smiled and told her, “I’m not lost. I’m saved.”
Then he explained what he was doing and why.
The associate told him, “Oh, we do that every weekend here for the employees.”
And then she showed him everything he needed to heat up the biscuits and gravy and serve it to a crowd.
Clark said they cooked out of people’s homes at first, before moving operations to High Lawn Baptist Church. But then the church closed, and Huntington’s mayor, Steve Williams, suggested they might do better to move operations away from the river.
“He suggested Trinity,” Clark said. “It was the church he attended.”
The church was able to provide use of their parking lot on Saturday, along with storage space and access to their kitchen, which makes providing breakfast easier for the volunteers.
“It’s not any one church,” Clark said. “It’s a lot of us who’ve come together in Christ to do this.”
The regular Saturday program attracts a wide variety of people.
Florida Powell came to Trinity to help make ends meet and first heard about the program from her sister. “She came and got toilet paper here,” Powell laughed. “Well, I work, and I thought I could use some free toilet paper.”
She also brought her daughters D’Janay and Aja. D’Janay has severe allergies and her mother wanted to see if there was anything the Marshall Medical School students could do to help treat them.
Jessica Layne, a fourth-year medical student and one of the student leaders, said the med school’s part of the program began modestly and was, at first, organized by students.
Each year, it’s grown with each new class. Now they can screen for dermatological problems and provide antibiotics and eyeglasses.
“That’s so important,” she said. “You just don’t think about it, but if you can’t see, you can’t fill out applications or paperwork. You’re also more prone to injury.”
Melissa Medley, 45, of Huntington, said she needed bifocals.
“It’s just me,” she said. “All my kids are grown and I work, but with rent and things, I just can’t afford them.”
Medley said she has insurance through her employer, but vision just wasn’t part of it.
“So, coming here is a real blessing to me,” she said.
Layne hoped the program would continue to grow and maybe even spread to other cities throughout the state.
Britney Wall, a third-year student, said they’ve seen a little bit of everything since they started coming. Some of it they can help with, but some of it is beyond their skills or the facilities they bring with them.
“We’ve had a case of trench foot,” she said. “Even the doctors with us that day had never seen it. We’ve seen scabies and even someone with a collapsed lung.”
They called an ambulance for that one. They’re not equipped for advanced care, can’t set broken bones, and they don’t give out prescription pain medicine — they don’t even have it with them.
Aside from providing medical services to a group less likely to seek it out elsewhere, Wall said it was a good experience for students like her.
“It’s helped me interact with patients,” she said. “And it’s really motivated me. I mean, this is why I want to be a doctor in the first place.”
Dr. Adrienne Mays, one of the physicians supervising the students and providing some of the care, explained that the program does more than just serve this particular group. It also gives their students the chance to develop people skills as well as experience working within a team that may include other medical professionals, social workers and even clergy.
“For some of the students, this is their first time really being part of a community,” she added.
Layne said that for her it wasn’t entirely about treating and curing, but caring.
“That’s important medicine,” she said. “Just showing people that they matter.”
Not everyone was there for medicine or would take it.
A quiet man with terrible tremors sat on the edge of the lot by himself. He drank his hot chocolate slowly and with difficulty before finally pedaling away on a bicycle that seemed to carry most everything he owned.
Others were just there for the company. They brought their little dogs; big-eared, shaggy mutts kept on leashes they fed leftover eggs and biscuits with gravy to.
David Starkey complained that everybody remembered his dog’s name, Harley Doodlebug, but never remembered his. Retired from working carnival midways around the country for 33 years, the 58-year-old said he and Harley came home to Huntington two years ago. To him, the city felt like family — or close enough.
“I don’t have much of that left,” he said. Just the dog, really, which he took in after his sister died.
Starkey said he’s been coming to Trinity Episcopal for a while, though it’s not because he really needs much. He lives simply, has a place to stay and enough to feed himself and Harley. He’s just not a particularly accomplished cook.
“I can’t make biscuits and gravy,” Starkey said. “I can make fried bologna sandwiches. I can fry up some eggs, but I can’t do biscuits.”
Still, he appreciates what everyone is trying to do, not that he needs any help.
“I’m as healthy as a horse,” Starkey said. “I don’t get sick that often.”
Drinking regularly, he thought, helped.
“Most good medicine has alcohol in it,” he said.
Carter said coming to Trinity’s parking lot teaches compassion. It breaks down boundaries and reconnects people with their community.
“You get to know about half the homeless, alcoholics and drug addicts in Huntington,” he said. “They become people you’d wave at when you drive past them on the street.”
Carter, his fellow Bikers for Christ, as well as whoever else wanted to, prayed over anyone who asked. That morning they prayed for Florida’s daughters as she wept. They prayed for healing and prayed God would watch over them.
“God provides,” he said. “You show up and he provides.”
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com, 304-348-5195 or follow @LostHwys on Twitter.