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Southern WV nonprofit celebrates 25th anniversary as need for services continues to grow

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KERMIT — In West Virginia, the small Mingo County town of Kermit has become almost a household name. Thanks to drug companies distributing millions of pills to small pharmacies in the town with a population of less than 400, Kermit has been featured in national, and even international, headlines describing the drug epidemic.

Less than half a mile from one of those pharmacies — the Sav-Rite, where 3 million pain pills were shipped in a 10 month period — Christian Help, a local nonprofit, has been working for 25 years to better the lives of those in the Kermit area, in any way it can.

Despite its name, the 501©(3) is nondenominational, and its doors are open to anyone looking for help.

“We’re here to help, and when we get together to give out food or clothes, you have people helping from every walk of life, all with different backgrounds,” said Mary McMasters, who sits on the nonprofit’s board. “It doesn’t matter who you are if you need help.”

In addition to the organization’s small staff, there are about 10 full-time volunteers who work daily under the leadership of Christian Help’s executive director, Sister Therese Carew.

They organize food drives, clothes drives and toy drives. They take people to medical appointments outside of town, or even to the town’s doctor if they don’t have transportation. They take stray cats and dogs in to be spayed or neutered, acting as the town’s “makeshift animal shelter,” Carew said.

If someone needs eyeglasses, they’ll help them pay for a prescription. Year round, they help families with utility bills to ensure that heat or electric doesn’t go off.

Carew has helped get several community members who suffer from drug addiction into rehab programs.

The work, she said, never ends. Sometimes it’s tiring.

“It builds up and it can be frustrating,” Carew said. “But it’s why we’re here.”

On Thursday evening, in the organization’s small, white building next to the Tug Fork River, where Martin County, Kentucky, sits on the other side, more than a dozen of Christian Help’s current volunteers, board members and employees met to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

There were homemade chicken and dumplings, sandwiches and other goods, all donated. In a large room that houses the organization’s “store,” where individuals can come and take any clothes or shoes they need for free, the group sat in a circle. On a small table in the corner, a line formed, where members waited to say hello — via Skype — to the organization’s founder, Sister Brendan Conlon.

Conlon, now 92 and living in Kentucky, started the organization in 1994, modeling it after Morgantown’s Christian Help, where she worked for several years. Her dream was to start a group in rural West Virginia, specifically in Kermit.

“All the volunteers over the years, everything that you all do every day ... everybody, this is so special,” Brendan said to the group Thursday.

Thursday’s celebration was a family affair, mostly because Christian Help operates as a sort of family. There are mothers and daughters, sisters and husbands and wives who — for years — have dedicated their time to the organization.

Elaine Endicott’s mother, Ruth Thornton, volunteered with Christian Help since its beginning in 1994. She died a few years ago, but Endicott and her father, Byron Thornton, still give their time to the group.

In the beginning, Endicott said her parents liked to work in the nonprofit’s clothing section. For years, the couple ran a clothing store in downtown Kermit called Thornton’s Store.

“I think it reminded her of working there,” Endicott said. “It was familiar, and she loved it.”

Today, Byron Thornton helps organize food for Christian Help’s events — something he’s done for years.

Endicott grew up in Kermit, and her husband is the town doctor. She said an organization like Christian Help is invaluable to the community.

“Like many parts of our area, the economy isn’t good, and people need help. Maybe not all the time, but certainly sometimes,” Endicott said. “You’re glad that, if you’re able, you can help.”

Jossie Spurlock has worked at Christian Help for about six years. It’s not her first nonprofit, but she considers the experience a gift.

Sometimes, she said, people come in saying they don’t have anything to eat, that they’re hungry and need help.

“We get them help,” Spurlock said. “We treat people like people, like human beings. There’s no judgment here.”

In the 1990s, Conlon worked with Sister Janet Peterworth, who started the group ABLE Families in the same building as Christian Help.

The organizations are completely separate, Carew said, but they work in tandem.

“You know that saying, ‘Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for his lifetime?’ Well it’s like that,” Carew said.

At Christian Help, people are given “the fish” in the form of clothes, food, transportation or financial assistance. At ABLE Families, individuals are offered career training and tools to improve their lives in the long term.

For Carew, who has been executive director at Christian Help for 10 years, both types of organizations are necessary in the area.

“We work separately with the same goal, and sometimes, through this work, you need to just get down in the ditches with people and help pull them up,” Carew said. “It’s not always easy, but it’s our job.”

She has personally seen a number of people enter drug rehab. One of those men, who she watched relapse (a normal step in recovery) and reenter a program, recently finished trade school.

Most devastating to her, though, are the children whose lives are turned upside down by the opioid epidemic.

“We’re here, we’re at the center of the opioid crisis, and where are our rehab centers? Where are the beds for those in need?” Carew said. “The biggest tragedy of all this is the children and the things they must learn to live with.”

Each year, to help families who may be financially strapped provide a Christmas celebration for their children, Christian Help hosts a Christmas Store.

Donations come from as far away as Georgia, and students at the local high schools give their time to set everything up and break everything down at the end. Those who sign up can choose from a number of toys for each of their children, divided by age. They also receive enough food for a Christmas dinner, and a stack of age-appropriate books for each child.

“It’s something you have to be here to see,” Carew said. “It’s really an experience.”

Last year, the organization helped 140 families with 355 children. This year, they’re on track to have even more families, with less donations — one of the groups who annually donates a huge load of toys wasn’t able to give this year.

That fits into a growing trend, Endicott said.

“Each year, it feels like there’s more to help here,” Endicott said. “More in need and less opportunity.”

As more needs to be done, though, she said the community has never failed to come together to assist others.

“Everyone struggles with something, I think we can all agree on that,” Endicott said. “Here, it’s not important. We’re going to find a way to improve, and that’s a community effort.”

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at, 304-348-7939 or follow

@CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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