Karen Simmons wasn’t taking any chances, so she showed up at the doorstep of Star Gospel Mission on Sunday morning, a day before the nonprofit group distributed free grocery store gift cards.
Simmons, 49, of downtown Charleston, was the first one in line in front of hundreds of people wrapped around the building and along Meeting Street on Monday morning.
“The line gets so long,” Simmons said. “People are pushing and fussing. That’s why I come out to be first.”
About 775 people received $50 gift cards to Bi-Lo. The funding for the gift cards, and other services that Star Gospel Mission will provide, including rent and utilities assistance and emergency medical services, come from The Post and Courier’s Good Cheer Fund, contributed to by readers.
Inside the building, Pastor Bill Christian talked strategy with his volunteers, seven of them seated at a long table ready to distribute the cards. “We have to keep people moving,” Christian told the volunteers. “That’s the key.”
Charleston police officers were stationed outside to keep order, but Christian said there were fewer people in line this year. He attributed that to a change in policy that was enacted last year that requires card recipients to be a minimum of 30 years old.
“We want to maximize elderly people getting a card,” Christian said, and added that there were enough cards for everyone in line.
Before opening the doors at 7:30 a.m., Christian bowed his head and led the volunteers in prayer, asking to help all those in need and that each one of those individuals receiving cards utilize the gift wisely.
To ensure that happens, the card’s use is restricted to food items; no tobacco, lottery, or alcohol products may be purchased with them.
Christian said all the money from the Good Cheer Fund is used on the gift cards or to provide other services in the community. “None of the money is used for administrative costs,” Christian said. “It all goes to the people in need.”
As Christian opened the doors, he hollered, “OK everybody, nice and orderly.”
Dozens huddled around the door and made their way inside. One woman had wrapped herself with a comforter to keep warm. Another woman was pushed in her wheelchair. Many shook the volunteers’ hands and thanked them for the gift. Others said “Merry Christmas.”
James Williams, of North Charleston, was among one of the first to make it inside. He said he arrived Sunday night and slept outside in order to secure his spot in line.
“I walked here,” he said. “It helps out a lot.”
Without a job and no job prospects, Williams said getting by isn’t easy.
“Being 57 years old, it’s very hard for me,” he said. “It’s bad sometimes. Thank God for some of the churches that provide food.”
Charleston City Councilmen Robert Mitchell and James Lewis Jr. were among the volunteers handing out the gift cards.
Lewis said it was his first year. “I promised myself when I retired from my job, I would help Pastor Christian. It means a lot to me to help,” he said.
It was a rewarding experience for Lewis, who said he enjoyed seeing the gratitude and the smiles among so many in the community.
“There’s a lot of people who need help. They’re very happy to have something to put on the table,” he said.
Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.