Sue Hanshaw doesn't especially like handouts, which might sound odd given she runs a ministry for people in need. One that hands out help.

By the numbers

Each year, Tricounty Family Ministries provides:

More than 310,000 meals from its soup kitchen and emergency food pantry

More than 400,000 pounds of food

Nearly 5,600 people with clothing

About 1,500 people with medication and counseling.

Source: Tricounty Family Ministries

About the nonprofit

To learn more about Tricounty Family Ministries or to volunteer or donate, go to, call 747-1788 or email


Intakes: 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays.

Hot lunches: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays.

Healing Hands (medical clinic): 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, or until all patients are seen.

Counseling: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, or until all clients are seen.

But it's the after part, the helping people become self-sufficient after filling their dire needs, that has led her to direct and expand Tricounty Family Ministries to include a wide range of services intended to do just that. What began 31 years ago as a soup kitchen and clothing closet today also provides everything from medical and dental care to transitional housing to budgeting and job-hunting classes - all for free.

It often starts with a homecooked meal given to someone in need.

Take a random lunch hour last week. Hanshaw pulls up outside the ministry, a plain red brick building in the heart of the Chicora-Cherokee community. A few spots down, a lone woman devours warm chicken in the front seat of an old car parked in the otherwise empty gravel lot. It's not one of the three days a week the ministry provides about 300 hot lunches to the hungry.

Hanshaw says hello, passes a yellow sign reading Safe Place and enters the ministry's front doorway. The volunteer chef, warming leftovers for other volunteers, says the woman came to the door hungry.

So he fed her.

"Well, that's what we do," Hanshaw says.

Because then comes the after.

Meeting needs

Operating in the old parsonage of Advent Lutheran Church and a once-dilapidated garage, the ministry is an ecumenical nonprofit housed in one of North Charleston's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Angels and crosses are common here, but faith is not required to enter.

As Hanshaw walks inside, rooms fill with the comforting aroma of bread, bakery goods and fresh produce donated by local stores.

Founded in 1983 as Lutheran Social Services, the ministry began as a soup kitchen and clothes closet. Since then, staff and volunteers have served more than 5 million meals, mostly to the low-income elderly, working poor and homeless. About 1,000 families have used its transitional housing to go from homelessness to self-sufficiency.

Over those years, the ministry grew as needs appeared.

When people came in for food, many couldn't chew due to rotting and lost teeth. The ministry added dental care and dentures.

Some couldn't hear well or afford hearing aids. Others couldn't see well and lacked money for glasses. Many were drowning in addictions. Others couldn't read. Many couldn't find jobs.

They spun in the cycle of poverty. The after for them was just more of the same.

Funded largely by grants and donations, Tricounty Family Ministries added services so that today it offers free help to overcome all of those obstacles.

"If you cannot see or cannot hear, how are you going to go get a job? You have to meet people where they are. The rest is just a pipe dream if you don't meet those basic needs," Hanshaw says.

Hungry and cold

Perhaps it says something that many of the ministry's regular volunteers once were clients. They know the desperation of not having a meal or a shelter.

Pat Melvin once slept in a car with her child after a job loss and to find safety from an abusive relationship.

"I'm a survivor and was used to doing things on my own," Melvin says. "But I'm also a realist."

When she accepted that she needed help, she went to the ministry's front door.

"My children were hungry, and I was hungry, and we were cold," Melvin says. "I needed to do what I needed to do."

Now, she reaches out to others just arriving at the door.

Nate Chisolm came here searching for work and says there is a local crisis of people hungry, homeless and hopeless. Yet, many see asking for help as a failure.

"Pride gets in the way," he says. "But when pride gets in the way, you starve."

Of people who come here, roughly one-third are homeless, one-third mentally ill and one-third recently unemployed. More and more clients are elderly, Hanshaw says.

"Mental illness and addictions, those are big things," Intake Supervisor Donna Wall says. That's partly why neurologist Dr. Marshall White and licensed counselor Dan Rotunda volunteer to help with therapy, medications and referrals.

In the Clothes House, Wall helps people find clothes for job interviews, funerals, school, whatever the need. Tricounty Family Ministries gives away about 800 pieces of clothing each month.

In the ministry's main building, volunteer chef Jimmy Priest prepares hot lunch for 300 people as he does three days a week.

And then there's Abe Heyward, who has volunteered here for 18 years and is busy sorting nonperishable food donations to pack into bags.

He hands out about 85 bags of emergency groceries a day to families. When he does so, he likes to read folks a Scripture verse "and then tell them to have a blessed day."

"I just have a love for everybody," Heyward says.

Changed lives

Earlier this year, the nonprofit took another step to help people in crisis move to self-sufficiency. It opened its Life Center on Reynolds Avenue, a blighted stretch that several groups, including nearby Metanoia, are working to revitalize.

The nondescript building fills a critical missing piece in moving people into self-sufficiency, into that after.

"This scroungy building has changed lives," Hanshaw says.

After all, regaining life's footing takes more than food, shelter and medical care. The ministry also requires that most clients take financial and parenting classes, search for jobs and receive counseling.

"I'm not into entitlements," Hanshaw says. "People have to really be wanting to make changes in their lives."

The Life Center's freshly renovated rooms now house the ministry's expanded partnerships with SC Works, which helps people find jobs, and Trident Literacy Association, which helps people gain literacy, math and computer skills. On Friday, SC Works and the ministry joined forces to hold their first job fair in the space.

The building also includes a chapel (altar and pews donated by a Catholic church, organ and lights by Baptist ones) and a community room that resembles a coffee bar. One recent afternoon, a class learned math and budgeting basics from another former ministry client.

A two-bedroom apartment upstairs provides transitional housing to families facing homelessness. They can stay up to three months for free.

"We ask people to be accountable and save their money," Hanshaw says.

Cathy Amende, who handles the ministry's special projects, walks through the building noting renovation work done by volunteers, paint from the Bees Ferry Landfill and furniture she got from Habitat for Humanity ReStores and donations.

"We do it on a shoestring," Hanshaw says. "We pinch pennies until they scream."

A new audit shows 97 percent of the ministry's money goes to programs. When Hanshaw came here in 1990 from a business career, she never imagined this is what the after could look like for so many who arrive at the ministry's door.

"Little did I know it would become what it is today," she says.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at