BY DEBBIE PAGE
Fresh out of Mitchell College in 1998 with three associates degrees in accounting, information systems, and programming, Michele Knapp joined the Diakonos Inc. – Fifth Street Ministries staff as its bookkeeper.
Twenty-two years later, Knapp is stepping into the very large shoes of Patti West, who retired in February as executive director after 30 years with the nonprofit ministry that she and husband Gary started in 1990. Talesa Carter is replacing Knapp as finance officer.
After joining the organization, Knapp learned a wide range of additional skills while working with the Wests, including non-profit management, personnel matters, public relations expertise, and grant writing.
Most importantly, the Wests taught Knapp how to treat others with compassion and love, regardless of their circumstances.
“I honestly wouldn’t be who I am today without them. They took the effort to explain things, to keep me involved in decisions and what was going on,” Knapp said. “Watching them do their daily work and relate to people has really shaped who I am.
“Most of my decisions and what I do is really based on learning from them and their influence over me. The two of them were amazing mentors,” she added.
When Patti announced her intention to retire last October, Knapp was inspired to apply for the position and continue the Wests’ work in the community. After going through the interview process, Knapp was selected by the board in November.
Knapp does not foresee any big changes in how Diakonos operates its many programs.
“I had 22 years beside Patti. I know how she does things, and I know how she would want the organization to continue — and that’s how I want it to continue in both of their honors — to continue what they started 31 years ago.”
“The mission stays the same — to compassionately serve those in need. We will continue doing what we’ve always done. I just envision offering more services to more people — to serve more,” she explained. “I know the need is there. We will focus on just reaching those people and acquiring the funding to help those in need.”
A SMOOTH TRANSITION
A native of Ohio, Knapp moved to Statesville in 1983, graduating from West Iredell High School in 1994. She has two children, Brett and Breanne, and one granddaughter, Paislee.
Knapp will complete her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a finance concentration at UNCC next spring and will then pursue her MBA to continue honing her management skills.
After being appointed by the Board of Directors to succeed West, Knapp set about delving into every aspect of the organization, soaking up West’s expertise during the transition.
In addition to overseeing the large shelter and community kitchen operation, Knapp is also responsible for the Veterans Transition Home, Path House (offering services to the chronically homeless), and My Sister’s House (a domestic violence shelter). Fifth Street is also the fiduciary agent of the Hope of Mooresville charity.
YEAR OF CHALLENGES
The COVID-19 pandemic presented Fifth Street Ministries with another set of challenges in its congregate living situation. All residents were checked twice a day for symptoms, and beds were moved to meet social distancing guidelines.
All new residents were quarantined in a hotel until they had a negative test, and the few positive folks were treated in hotel rooms, with Fifth Street providing food and arranging medical care.
Fortunately, Knapp said, these measures kept the facility free from any outbreaks throughout the pandemic.
The large 30th anniversary fundraiser on March 5, 2020, was a lifesaver, said Knapp, since later fundraisers had to be cancelled as the virus spread and gathering restrictions began.
Donations have been down some with the slowing of the economy, but new Development Director Amy Freeze is reaching out to previous sponsors and partners to re-establish relationships and writing grants in an effort to fill in any funding gaps.
COVID-19 funding also allowed Fifth Street’s Rapid Re-housing program to help folks acquire housing by providing deposits, utilities help, and rent subsidies for two years until the person’s situation stabilizes.
However, the severe shortage of eligible affordable housing options in the area is hampering their efforts, according to Knapp. “Case managers are calling landlords and literally driving around looking for available properties,” she said. “We have people approved and waiting, but we can’t find a place.”
Knapp said that Fifth Street, Statesville Housing Authority, city planners, I-CARE, Statesville Police Chief David Addison, and others are meeting to come up with a long-range plan to increase affordable housing in South Statesville, perhaps by rehabbing blighted properties and foreclosures, so she’s hopeful that more options are on the horizon.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Knapp wants to continue the Wests’ legacy by expanding and improving existing programs. She envisions creating a culinary program under a professional chef’s supervision that would prepare residents for careers in local restaurant partners’ businesses.
“We have so much donated food, and there’s an opportunity to create something wonderful with it,“ said Knapp, perhaps even creating frozen meals to distribute.
The Veteran’s Transition Home and My Sister’s House are running smoothly, but Knapp is further familiarizing herself with their operations and looking at any needs to determine what tweaks, additions, or expansion the programs may require.
Path House, which provides food, supplies, and bathing and clothes washing facilities for homeless individuals, lost its federal funding in 2018. However, Knapp has directed some of the organization’s COVID-19 funding to Path House, allowing the hiring of a full-time case manager and peer support to bring this program back up to strength and to continue expanding its outreach efforts.
The growing staff is also presenting a new challenge — office space. Two new case managers are now on staff, funded with COVID-19 funds. One focuses on the organization’s Rapid Rehousing Program, which serves five counties – Iredell, Davie, Surry, Stokes, and Yadkin.
The other is a second general case manager, expanding support and assistance efforts to the average 100 guests of the shelter.
One housing case manager is based in Surry County, also helping those in Yadkin and Stokes counties, and is having success finding accommodations there. Knapp said some local folks have chosen to move to one of those counties to get housing more quickly while still continuing services with Fifth Street.
Fifth Street also has a part-time SOAR case manager, funded by Partners, who assists guests with getting government benefits, IDs and Social Security cards, and other needs.
This service is important because in North Carolina, persons without a state ID must have a birth certificate and Social Security card, both of which are difficult to get with COVID-19 closures, to obtain one. Without a valid state ID card, getting a job or housing is nearly impossible, said Knapp.
Shelter space is adequate for now, with the staff serving an average of 100 overnight guests and another 100 for lunch and dinner in the community kitchen, which is open to any community members in need of a meal.
WEEKLY FOOD BOX GIVEAWAY
Fifth Street is giving out food boxes every Friday afternoon from 1 to 3 p.m. for the foreseeable future to assist those with food insecurity. Food can be picked up at the facility’s back door, with a limit of one box per person.
VOLUNTEERS RETURNING SOON
Fifth Street is welcoming back volunteers in small groups and for outside activities at the shelter beginning May 1.
The most immediate needs are help in the kitchen (limit 3) or food pantry (limit 3), in sorting the clothes closet (limit 12), and in landscaping projects at the main shelter, My Sister’s House, and PATH House.
Kitchen shifts are available to prepare the 11 a.m. lunch and 5:30 p.m. dinner service. Food pick-up drivers are needed from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. every Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Later in the spring and summer, volunteer opportunities will include helping create fun nights for shelter guests, including bingo, movies, game nights, crafts, and holiday activities.
The COVID-safe Christmas in July event returns this year on Sunday, July 18, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Fifth Street Ministries. The drive-thru event will feature meals for pickup for $10 each. To reserve meals, contact Freeze at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instead of an in-person auction, Knapp and the staff are having an online auction with a larger array of items available this year. Bake sale items will also also available for purchase and, if prearranged, can be picked up with the lunches on July 18.
Knapp said letters will go out May 1 to potential Christmas in July sponsors, auction donors, and advertisers. If interested in donating an item for the auction, contact Freeze for more information.
The annual Card of Hope party, featuring a card design created by Statesville artist Amy Sullivan, will be in October. The small invitation-only wine and cheese event and art auction will be at ggs in Statesville.
The biennial “Big Ask” fundraiser is scheduled for March of 2022.