Peggy Garrett was “in between gigs” as a social worker in 1980 when she began working at what is now the Urban Mission. She thought the position of assistant director would be a nice “temporary thing.”
“I guess God had other plans because I’m still here 34 years later,” said Garrett, 59, of Harrah.
Back then, Garrett’s primary task was to develop an affordable after-school program for low-income families. With help from volunteers, SPARK (Support Program of Arts and Reading for Kids) was established. It continues and has served more than 2,000 children since its inception.
Today, Garrett is executive director at the Urban Mission, 3737 N Portland Ave. The years have rolled by swiftly, and the needs are pretty much the same, she said. Families continue to struggle to provide the basic needs such as food, clothing and school supplies for their kids.
In 1980, the food pantry was situated in a 4-by-6-foot closet. Today, the Food Resource Center covers more than 16,000 square feet.
The old pantry served five to 10 families weekly. Now, they assist 60 to 70 families in three hours.
“We have seen a 76 percent increase in the number of families served for July as compared to July 2013, so the need has increased dramatically,” Garrett said. “Stop by any day at noon and you will see a line of people waiting to receive help, eerily similar to pictures of the Great Depression.”
The Urban Mission also offers the Mission Marketplace, an upscale thrift store; the Kid’s Cafe, a program providing nutrition education and hot, nutritious meals to children in the SPARK program; a back-to-school program, providing school supplies to children of families in need; and the Santa Store.
The Santa Store is a partnership with local businesses and churches to provide gifts and food to families in need during the holidays. More than 500 children sign up to receive toys or other items.
It might be easy to think the programs are just about meeting short-term needs, but Garrett hopes the efforts also can lead to long-term changes.
“I have been extremely blessed to have been present and able to play a small part in hopefully changing people’s lives for the better,” she said. “It’s not often that you get the chance to see that change.”
Garrett recalled being at a local furniture store one year during the hectic Christmas season. Garrett was tired and stressed and things were not going in her favor. Eventually she arrived at the warehouse dock to pick up the gift she selected for her husband.
“There was a young man there who looked at my ticket and then looked back at me and said, ‘You don't remember me, do you, Miss Peggy?’” she said.
The young man told Garrett his name and said he’d attended the SPARK program.
“It all came back to me then,” Garrett said. “He was a very bright, energetic kid, but like most of the others in the program, a product of a broken home. His father was gone and his mother was a substance abuser.
“If someone had asked me back then what his chances were, I would have said they were pretty bleak. But, here he was, all grown up and he had a job and was enrolled in college. I was doing my happy dance that he’d survived, but he was more concerned with the SPARK program. He was anxious to know if the program was still active and when I told him yes, he let out a sigh. He told me that his time in SPARK was the best time he’d had in his life, and that we’d always made him feel good about himself.”
That’s just one more reason Garrett is thankful that what she perceived as temporary became a long-term blessing in her life.