Increased need leads to expanded services for Operation Liberty Hill

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

When it comes to charitable giving and the need to help others, there is only one solution to more need in the community.

For Operation Liberty Hill, the answer was extended hours and an expanded service area.

“In the last year we have expanded our service area from just Liberty Hill to Leander, Bertram and Briggs, and at the same time we started getting donations from five different grocery stores,” said Executive Director Susan Baker.

The thrift store will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Black Friday, and new Saturday hours – 1-5 p.m. – will help raise more funds to meet more needs.

A lot has changed for the organization dedicated to helping area families in need since it began in 2011, but the mission – which Baker said is a calling – has not.

“We are a ministry,” she said. “Me and the five ladies that started Operation Liberty Hill, God laid on our hearts all at the same time that something needed to be done in this area.”

One of the most visible changes was how the need for help expanded well beyond the Liberty hill area.

“Originally, we wanted to be all about Liberty Hill,” Baker said. “You had to be in the Liberty Hill school district to receive services from us. Because we were blessed with all this food, and we moved to a location with a Leander address, we just felt like the Lord was leading us and saying ‘You need to open your doors more and serve the people that are around you’.”

Operation Liberty Hill (OLH) began with 45 families as clients, and before it opened the doors to Leander, it was up to 200 families. Now, on a typical day, the organization serves 50 to 60 households.

“We are seeing so many people now,” Baker said. “Now they can come more than once a month. They only get their once a month unit of food, but they can come every week and get meat and produce and bread because we get so much of it.”

Partnerships with the Central Texas Food Bank and area grocers have brought OLH an abundance of meat, produce and bakery items to distribute.

“We got bread only for about a year,” Baker said. “We didn’t even care about the bread, but we knew there was more coming. We knew that was the tip of the iceberg and now that’s the least of what we get. We get tons of meat and produce, it is just awesome.

“That’s how we were able to start serving more people. That being said, even though we are able to serve a lot more people with those items, we still have a lot of needs for the other things that stock our shelves.”

This time of year, Christmas dinner boxes are provided to Angel Tree recipients and food pantry clients.

Community efforts including food drives at local schools and the recent “Stuff a Cruiser” food drive sponsored by the Liberty Hill Police Department help tremendously. But, what remains a daily need are items such as canned goods, side dishes, toiletries, and of course monetary donations to be able to assist families in other ways.

“We give out heaters, we give out fans, there are just a lot of things we do that we have to purchase with our own money.”

The produce and meat that come in is a blessing that allows OLH to put money into other ways to assist those in need, said Baker, who added that previously, OLH was spending about $3,000 monthly on meat alone.

Families can also get help with shoes and clothing, and right now, specifically coats are a big item of need.

“We’re doing a coat voucher this year and if anybody has coats, send them to us because we have them flying off the rack right now. Coats and heaters are things we could really use right now,” Baker said. “We also give them clothing vouchers so they can get six items of clothing and a pair of shoes for every person in their family every other month. We get so many clothes that come through here that we can keep the very best of the best so they get some really nice clothing.”

The vision was to be an organization that helped in many different ways, to ease the burden on those most in need with the fewest resources.

“There’s no public transportation, and people would go once a month for a two-hour period to a food bank,” Baker said of what she saw when she first began volunteering locally. “That was the main reason we started something that could be a one-stop shop, and we will help people with just about any issue they come in with. If we can’t help them resolve it we can refer them somewhere else.”

Today, in addition to the food pantry and clothing assistance, OLH can help with utility bills, rent, gas vouchers, prescriptions, and can even help people find health care options.

“We do provide financial assistance for just the Liberty Hill area,” she said. “We don’t have the funds to do more than that. We do all kinds of things.”

There is one more less tangible, but very valuable service OLH offers every person who walks in the door with a need.

“People can come here and have a shoulder to cry on, talk to someone in private, they can pray with someone if they want to,” Baker said. “A lot of people, especially those living in crisis mode all of the time, just need someone to tell them they are valuable and they are loved. No one is going to judge them, we are just going to try and help them how we can.”

What is the need?
With Liberty Hill and the surrounding area growing so rapidly with large homes in more upscale neighborhoods, it might be easy to forget or dismiss the need or question just how many families may be struggling, but Baker said the need is definitely growing.

“Everybody must be doing good over there, look at it,” she said, referring to the type of growth Liberty Hill is seeing. “(But that growth) really has the opposite effect. The more people you have that are upper and middle class, the more people you are pushing down into lower class and when I say that, I mean below poverty level.”

Rising property values and fixed incomes can create struggles quickly for some.

“We have a lot of clients that own their own homes,” she said. “They are little tiny shacks pretty much, but they can’t pay the property taxes now. We have clients losing their homes because their social security won’t pay the property taxes even though they own their home.”

The typical image of a homeless person or family is not what people see in the area, but Baker said there are homeless clients that visit OLH.

“Everybody says there are no homeless people out here, you don’t see them standing on the corners,” she said. “You may not, but they’re here. They are sleeping down at the river, they’re couch-hopping, they’re staying with other people, they’re living in their cars.”

One, maybe even two lower wage jobs may not be enough to make ends meet when all the expenses add up or misfortune strikes a family.

“As good as the economy looks to some people, there are still those jobs that no matter how many hours they work, they’re not going to be able to support their family,” Baker said. “They’re still below poverty level, especially if they have several children. Someone may not have the skills or education to get a $25 per hour job somewhere that pays for the childcare, which is several hundred per week for one child, plus have a car, take care of the car, put gas in the car, it’s just a lot.”

And when someone is not working, Baker said it is not something OLH uses to discount their need for assistance.

“There are people who in our opinion should be working, but for whatever reason – it could be mental health issues, it could be physical issues – we aren’t judging them,” she said. “We have no business judging them because we don’t know everybody’s whole story.”

Baker says it would be impossible for someone to take advantage of the system enough to live an “easy life” on the programs offered by OLH, and that it is not worth turning anyone in need away over suspicions.

“We’re giving them about 10 days worth of food,” she said. “We can’t decide we are going to judge people this much or this much,” she said. “We can’t judge at all. We don’t know where they got their car, we don’t know who paid for their nails to be done. The people who are addicted, and may smell like alcohol or cigarettes, they’re the ones who need love and acceptance more than anyone.”

How can you help?
Accomplishing such a growing mission and meeting so many needs is not something OLH can do without a wider community commitment, and that means donations of money, food and clothing, and time.

Monetary donations are often what is most important.

“It is something we can always use because we can buy whatever we’re short on, whether it is diapers or food, heaters or helping people with bills,” Baker said. “We count on this time of year for people to make those monetary donations.”

Anyone looking to make a donation can go to the website at www.operationlh.org or donate at www.facebook.com/operationlibertyhill/. Checks can be mailed to PO Box 1081, Liberty Hill, Texas 78642.

And the food pantry is always in need of certain items.

“Food is always an important item around here,” Baker said. “Things like boxed meals – hamburger, tuna and chicken helper – refried beans and other canned and dry goods.”

Despite growing from a small handful to more than 70 current volunteers, expanded hours and more people to serve means another critical need is more volunteers.

“We always need more volunteers,” Baker said. “We have such a variety of things volunteers can do, and different time slots. When people start crying to me about being bored and depressed or not having anything to do, I tell them to get out and do something for somebody else and you will not believe how you will be blessed as you provide a blessing to somebody else.”

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