By Jacque Hilburn-Simmons, Special Contributor
HAWKINS — Pastor Jeff Karlson isn’t one to start something and not finish it.
So when he agreed, years ago, to help Hawkins start a ministry to assist needy families, it was a pledge he took seriously.
“It’s been 30 years,” he said. “That’s a long time.”
Karlson serves as pastor of Whispering Pines Church of the Nazarene at Lake Hawkins, but the bulk of his workweek is devoted to helping the community-based nonprofit Hawkins Helping Hands, which distributes food and gently used clothing to needy, qualified families within the Hawkins Independent School District.
The nonprofit operates a thriving thrift store, which helps fund operations through the sale of donated household items and clothing.
One might assume this type of arrangement happens only in larger towns, but Karlson — as its longtime director — said the group’s success is testament to the big-hearted supporters that keep the wheels turning, for 30 years and counting.
“For our size, we’re unique,” Karlson said. “We’re self-funded and that’s very unique for small East Texas towns.”
A HELPING HAND
Hawkins attracts a variety of families, some staying only a short time before moving on, the pastor said.
The organization is not intended to be a long-term solution for economic hardship, but rather a stopgap for those coping with job loss, illness and personal emergencies.
In some ways, Helping Hands is a reflection of the community’s economic ebbs and flows, evidenced largely through interest in its food pantry and holiday gift campaigns.
“It’s gradually growing,” Karlson said, citing an apparent uptick in food insecurity among many families.
There are dozens of volunteers who pitch in weekly to help out, and like Karlson, stay involved for years.
Volunteer Jim Armstrong is among the long-timers, logging in more than a decade of service.
He and dozens of other volunteers, including wife, Suzan, spent a recent chilly morning fulfilling the Christmas wish lists of local children.
He serves as board chairman for the nonprofit and apparently looks forward every week to helping out.
“You can tell we enjoy this,” he said with a grin, sidestepping volunteers to maneuver through a room loaded with toys, diapers and children’s clothing. “It’s not work.”
Hawkins Helping Hands actually started out in 1987 by the Hawkins Ministerial Alliance, in space borrowed from the parsonage at the United Methodist Church.
It was a modest operation, offering a little food and assistance to a handful of families down on their luck.
“It was a fairly new concept in the 80s,” Karlson said. “We just had all the right people at the right time.”
People working behind the scenes represented a cross segment of the area in terms of race, religion and socio-economic standing, putting differences aside to serve the common good.
As local support for the efforts grew, the group’s ability to help expanded as well — the growing group settled eventually into a small house and several outbuildings.
Today, the bustling nonprofit, 320 W. Front St., distributes roughly 100 food boxes that feed approximately 450 people each month.
A multitude of area churches are among its supporters, including but not limited to Summit Heights, Trinity Lutheran, Holly Tree Chapel and First United Methodist.
Helping Hands works also with the East Texas Food Bank and King’s Store House Food Bank to secure food at reduced costs.
It receives no government funding and adheres to federal guidelines to determine eligibility.
The organization supports like-missioned nonprofits, such as Goodwill, by donating excess items.
“I like it,” said food pantry helper Joy McHargue of Red Springs, who recently started volunteering. “To hang out with these ladies and fill boxes … I really enjoy it.”
The thrift store offers more than just clothing and housewares — bargain shoppers can snag everything from books and televisions to computers.
“We tore down the old building,” Karlson said. “We went from 800 square feet to a 2,000 square foot metal building.”
The shop is open for business 9 a.m. to noon, Tuesday through Thursday. Donations are accepted throughout the week.
It’s been an amazing journey, Karlson said, adding, “The community accepted us and been supportive. It’s a special group of people who have been placed here.”