Erika Flint knows firsthand about giving dignity to the needy

Flint is executive director of the Watertown (N.Y.) Urban Mission, which works quietly to help people get back on their feet so they can take care of themselves.

Courtesy of Nicole Caldwell
'We provide help in a way that inspires people. They don’t stand in a line and become a number,' says Erika Flint, executive director of the Watertown (N.Y.) Urban Mission.

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 A man walks through a set of doors next to an archway with a sign: “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread.” As he gets a shopping cart, he’s joined by an employee who points out new products and calls his attention to posters depicting portion allotments based on family size. The man pulls a bag of rice, a bottle of juice, a loaf of fresh-baked French bread, shampoo, produce from a local garden, and a can of tomatoes. He is walked to the front of the store, checks out, and takes his bags of groceries home to his family.

This is the new face of poverty: a dignity-driven, choice-based system encouraging individuals to take charge, make smart food choices, and usher in better choices and a better life. This is a world without shame for falling on hard times. This is the Watertown Urban Mission, a nonprofit organization located on Factory Street in the heart of Watertown, New York.

“My mother was one of nine children,” says Erika Flint, 33, who has served as the Mission’s executive director since 2011. “She raised me on her own. And though we occasionally received aid through government programs, most of our help came from churches, neighbors, and family members. The help wasn’t obvious. It didn’t feel like we had no money, or that we were in need.”

That experience is what made the job at Watertown Urban Mission resonate so strongly for Erika. “We provide help in a way that inspires people,” she says. “They don’t stand in a line and become a number.”

The Watertown Urban Mission creates a network of local churches, organizations, businesses, and individuals to help people through difficult times in Watertown and surrounding Jefferson County. The organization was created by three ministers in 1967 interested in banding together churches of all denominations to serve neighbors in need. In 1968, 15 churches pledged their commitment to the Mission—a number that today has ballooned to more than 40 countywide.

The Mission’s programming offers food, clothing, shelter, medicine, vital supplies, and counseling in order to empower people to get back on their feet. None of this assistance is cash-based. Instead, the Mission offers specific items and help to individuals in order to target the exact source of need.

There are six major programs Erika oversees at the Mission: the Bridge Program, a court-ordered alternative to incarceration for those facing legal issues because of alcohol or drug abuse; the Christian Care Center, offering fellowship through daily devotions, bible study, and prayer; Critical Needs, providing emergency assistance such as medications, diapers, furniture, or home repair; the Food Pantry, serving more than 500 families a five-day supply of food every month; HEARTH, preventing and addressing homelessness; and the Impossible Dream Thrift Store, selling donated goods and clothing to the public at affordable prices.

Erika grew up in Croghan, New York, about 30 miles east of Watertown.

“It was a very small community,” she says. “When I was little, I thought nothing of going to my Uncle Dennis and Aunt Darlene’s house and having them pull food out of their refrigerator saying, ‘Oh, we bought too much of this,’ or ‘Here, take this home with you.’ They gave us food without making it seem like they felt sorry for us—they didn’t do it like we were starving. And we weren’t—we had this support system.”

Now married with two children of her own, Flint pays her childhood experience forward every day at the Mission. 

“Because most of our funding comes from private sources, we can do what makes sense,” she says. “It’s not a deficit-based approach. At the Mission if you are working, or are trying to get an education, we can help fill in the gaps where you need it to keep you going in the right direction.”

The Watertown Urban Mission negates the Catch-22 of poverty in the United States. Instead of cutting checks or mailing out food vouchers, the Mission works face-to-face with individuals and families. They might help with specific car repairs so its owner can get to work; provide business attire for a job interview; provide medications for someone who can’t afford them; or ensure a child has school supplies.

The Mission empowers people to take responsibility over their own progress. For example, a person who works and is the legal guardian of at least one child is eligible to receive transportation support. The Mission may buy a car worth several thousand dollars and sell it to a person for $600, payable through monthly installments of $50.

We could just give the cars away,” Erika says. “But instead, we enable people to buy their own.”

One woman had a water pump fail this winter at her home. Without money to buy a new one, she was forced to melt snow for drinking, bathing, and dish washing.

“She had no resources,” Erika explains, “but she owned her own home. Her husband had died in that home—she had lived there so long, and she didn’t want to move.”

The Mission wanted to help. Instead of giving the woman cash or even a gift certificate to a hardware store, “We bought her a water pump and had someone install it for her. And in the meantime, we coordinated with a church to bring her fresh gallons of water.” Putting faces to the aid and targeting specific places where help is needed, Flint says, eliminates the risk of mismanagement—for the givers and the receivers.

One man who went through the Bridge Program as an alternative to incarceration said this about the Mission: “This program didn’t just give me my life back; it gave my daughter her dad back.” A mother and daughter going through the Critical Needs program had this conversation within earshot of staff: “Why are we here?” the daughter asked. The mother replied: “So someday you don’t have to be.”

These stories—and countless others—understandably inspire a lot of giving. All donations, no matter their size, are celebrated; but one recent gift was particularly noteworthy.

KB Global Care, the charitable arm of New York Air Brake Company’s parent company, the Germany-based Knorr-Bremse Group, awarded the Watertown Urban Mission $205,000 in 2014 toward the nonprofit’s campaign seeking $2 million to revitalize its Factory Street location and establish an endowment.

“This is the first grant from them to be dispersed in this continent,” Erika says. The grant, which pushed the Mission past its campaign goal a full 11 months ahead of schedule, ensures renovation of the food pantry and thrift shop, upgraded safety measures, improved privacy in consultation areas, the creation of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and lifts, and much-needed renovations such as insulated windows.

Unsurprisingly, what grabbed the attention of those determining grant recipients was this: The Mission helps people get back on their feet so they can take care of themselves.

“The funding will allow us to give people a space they can feel proud of when they walk in,” Erika says. “This works with our intention of allowing people to do for themselves in order to maintain a sense of pride.”

Asked to come up with the most difficult part of this work, she shrugs.

“I don’t think there’s anything difficult about this job,” she says with a smile, “except always wanting to do more.”

• For more information visit the Watertown Urban Mission website.

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