Carolyn Thompson, director of Tri-Coastal Community Outreach Inc., believes “we have to change our approach to the way we help people; by making them part of their own solution, instead of being their solution, we can change the world …
“Whoever invented the idea of doing everything for people living in poverty and not teaching them how to make it work sold all of us a bill of goods that never has, and never will, work,” Thompson said recently.
The programs she administers out of a building on State Highway 188 in Grand Bay are designed with that mission in mind — help people in need, but teach them to help themselves, their neighbors and their communities.
Thompson moved to the coast about 12 years ago after ending a 20-year marriage. Her children were all “grown, healthy and living their own productive lives.” She earned a nursing degree from the University of South Alabama and “had just begun to enjoy my newfound freedom when Hurricane Katrina interrupted my relaxation,” Thompson said.
She began helping her mother, who pastored a church in Fowl River, to find food and clothing for families in south Mobile County. A year after the storm, the needs didn’t seem to be going away, and Tri-Coastal, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity, was organized to help those who came “from far and near — across state lines didn’t seem to bother them. And we were there to service the need, not judge,” Thompson said.
Four years ago, Thompson revamped Tri-Coastal so as not to be “another social-welfare program. There are enough churches and free services [agencies] doing that,” she said. “I have seen many people who live in poverty their whole lives, and no matter how many programs are offered, they continue to live in the same condition.”
Her “plight,” she said, “is to help those that want to stop dangling at the bottom of the food chain and move out of the way so others can be helped. The programs at Tri-Coastal are designed to do just that.”
The goal is to promote the idea that if a community works together, it can bounce back from any hardship. (See the brief summary of Tri-Coastal’s programs at the end of this article; 163,000 men, women and children were served in 2014.)
Tri-Coastal Outreach programs are funded through private and community donations, sales from a thrift store operated by the organization and, “now and then, I write a grant that comes through,” Thompson said. The organization was featured on ABC’s “Secret Millionaire” in 2013; the gift from Wing Lam helped pay off the loan on the building in Grand Bay. Another plus: Workers are all volunteers — there’s no paid staff. So that helps keep the cost of operation down, Thompson said.
The Tri-Coastal founder explained a little about how and why she practices what she preaches.
“I raised seven children, three girls and four boys. My ex-husband built houses for a living, expensive ones at that. We spent the weekends cleaning up what they put up during the week. I learned a lot from what I saw,” she said.
“So when we taught the boys how to [accomplish such tasks as] change a flat tire, we taught the girls the same thing. That included building walls, hanging drywall, mudding the walls, changing out commodes, stopping water leaks, planting a garden, cooking food, and we even taught the boys how to braid hair, wash clothes and iron … I wanted my children to know how to fly on their own, just in case we were not around to coach them later in life.”
After Hurricane Katrina, Thompson said, “I saw people who needed to know they [too] could fly on their own, if only taught how.
“Our neighbors are our greatest asset. We can’t afford to let everyone mind their own business and be our brother’s keeper at the same time. The two don’t match,” she said.
Some of the Tri-Coastal programs are described below:
• Project School Bus furnishes school supplies for children at the beginning of school and again after Christmas.
• On Wings of Doves provides Christmas for “guardian angel children, special, deserving extra love,” Thompson said.
• Youth in Action is a program that gives young people who have been assigned community service hours by the court a place to not only work off their hours but learn about helping others. In addition, students needing community service hours — for example, members in an organization such as the Key Club — get the same opportunity.
• Successful Start is a program allowing low-income students to give 20 hours of community service at a place of their choice in exchange for dorm supplies for college.
• It’s All About You, construction workshops for clients who have minor repair needs at their homes. They learn to do their own repairs, how to use unconventional materials in other ways, learn new skills to use around the house and, consequently, are able to teach their own children to use those skills at home and in their neighborhoods.
• Financial Fitness, where Tri-Coastal workers have been trained to help community members with the building blocks of financial literacy.
• Healthy Initiatives, which offers classes on improving health, preparing for disasters and decreasing visits to acute-care facilities, if possible. Participants are taught how to use monitors such as those for measuring blood pressure and glucose and are given those monitors to take home.
• Project Tool Kit helps clients with tools that have been introduced in the IAAY construction workshops.
• Pantry Programs include Share 2 Share and Help Now. With Help Now, Tri-Coastal fills an immediate need for household and food items. This service is provided not more than four times a year to an individual. With Share 2 Share, community members pledge to support the programs with a small donation.
“I have found that it lifts the spirits of people to know that they are helping others, even when they are helping themselves,” Thompson explained. “They say it feels good to know they are helping to make sure children have supplies to start school with and that their [own] children and other children will have a Christmas to remember.”
For more information on Tri-Coastal Community Ourtreach Inc., visit tricoastalcommunity.org or call 251-865-9731.