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Assistance organization tries to get attention

The narrow road in front of the Marshall Center is easy to miss.

And even drivers following the speed limit on Courthouse Road could whiz past the sign announcing the American Legion fields without noticing that it also points the way to the “SECA Thrift Shop.”

In fact, many people don’t even know that Spotsylvania Emergency Concerns Association, a nonprofit agency helping county residents with food and money, exists.

“You say, ‘SECA,’ and people go, ‘What’s that?’” said Treasurer Dianne Williams. “People don’t know that we are here, and we need them to.”

Still, the parking lot is full most weekday mornings. And the makeshift waiting room —about a dozen mismatched chairs crammed into a relatively empty space in the thrift store—is standing room only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Those are the days SECA offers assistance, trying to help Spotsylvania residents who might otherwise fall through the cracks. The small metal building holds a thrift store, an office for financial assistance, a food pantry and a small warehouse.

The thrift store is open five days a week; proceeds from the sales pay for the financial assistance, which helps people struggling to pay rent, medical bills and utilities.

And the people who need help find SECA without a problem. Often, they are referred by the county’s department of social services or a school social worker.

But the agency struggles to attract the people who could help by providing items to sell in the store, food to give away or money to fund the operation.

SECA got its official start in 1986, when a group of volunteers met in churches to talk about how to help those people who were waiting for their food stamps or welfare payments to start or those who earned a little bit too much to qualify for assistance but who still couldn’t make ends meet.

But the idea sprang up in 1984 when Louise Newton, a Spotsylvania social worker, asked her husband, Robert, to create a group of volunteers who could give groceries to people waiting for food stamps and give money to those facing imminent eviction.

Robert Newton had just retired and enthusiastically agreed to the task. In the beginning, SECA helped about 10 families each month.

The work has multiplied in the intervening decades.

Last year, the agency helped nearly 10,000 Spotsylvania residents. SECA helped more than 800 people in the past month.

“Every week, we have more people coming,” said Sherry Gillis, the group’s vice president.

Those people include families living in motels—or cars—senior citizens struggling to buy medicine, young adults without jobs.

These days, SECA’s volunteers see more and more people in the latter category, Newton said.

“They’re out of work, there’s just no work around here,” he said. “But they have to eat, they have to pay their bills, and that’s what we’re here for.”

And as winter made its first blustery entrance of the year, it looked as if SECA wasn’t going to be able to help with heating costs. For 27 years, the agency has helped people buy kerosene or gas to heat their homes. But this year, SECA was stuck trying to make budgeting decisions just like the people coming through their doors.

“Right now, we just do not have the money in the account, and we have to buy food first.” Gillis said.

At the last minute, a donor gave money in memory of Louise Newton, who died this fall. That money will keep the heat on in several homes for a little while, at least. But SECA volunteers are trying to find more money. Donations have been dropping in the past few years, and even regular donors are unable to help as much.

“It’s hard for them,” Newton said. “They have to feed their families, too.”

Schools and churches pitch in with food drives. Those help keep down the costs that SECA pays to the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank.

And the thrift store brings in money. But SECA’s leaders try to balance the needs of the thrift store shoppers—many of whom are also clients.

A shirt sells for 50 cents, a suit for $1.

“We try to keep costs down,” Gillis said. “We know they need these things.”

On a recent morning, shoppers snatched up a variety of items: a suit for a job interview, a Christmas sweater for a church party and a humidifier for a sick relative.

Many shopped while waiting for their turn to get some food and money for their bills.

“We mainly do emergency needs,” Williams said, “And there are lots.”

“If they need assistance, we’re going to do whatever we can to help,” Gillis added.

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973


Spotsylvania Emergency Concerns Association struggles to help a growing number of Spotsylvania County residents in need. The agency could use money, food and gently used goods.

To help, drop off donations at SECA, 8812 Courthouse Road, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Or mail checks to: Box 923; Spotsylvania, VA 22553.

SECA also seeks help with its Christmas baskets. The agency usually gives a holiday meal and a few toys to families in need. Last year, the agency donated 135 baskets. The toy drive that SECA usually relies on isn’t happening this year, so the agency needs new toys to give away. They could also use food to put in the baskets.

To help, call SECA at 540/582-2465.