Nancy Vukovich said she has seen a change in the lives of those who come to her church seeking hot food and company.
When clergy with First United Methodist Church in Warren decided to feed area children who showed up for services looking hungry, they didn't foresee that nearly six years later they'd be serving a much larger crowd of mostly adults.
Now the gesture has blossomed into a second church service and communion for any who seek a healthy meal, a little company and the word of God.
The Rev. Julia Wike, left, leads the 10 a.m. Sunday service as Richard Martin of Warren, formerly of New York City, steps up to give his testimony at the First United Methodist Church in Warren.
Tribune Chronicle photos / R. Michael Semple
"We're at ground zero for change in the city. We are really part of a movement in Trumbull County to make Warren better," said connections pastor Kyle Tennant.
Mallory Jackson of Warren, who started attending the Sunday morning meals at First United Methodist about four years ago, does his part in encouraging others to come to the service.
"They do marvelous work for the neighborhood. They have different groups, small groups you can go to. Anybody can get along with everybody. We've got a lot of homeless people out there ... and they can eat as much as they want to," he said.
15% - Ohioians living below the poverty line
16% - People in Trumbull County in poverty
33% - People in Warren in poverty
$29,000 - Median household income in Warren
$42,000 - Median household income in Trumbull County
$48,000 - Median household income in Ohio
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007-11 American Community Survey
"I've been in churches all my life, but I've never been in one like that," he said.
The Rev. Julia Wike issues the 10 a.m. Sunday service for those partaking.
"I always have someone coming up seeking prayer and needing help. I don't think I leave one time without someone coming up with a critical need," she said.
Jackson said he recently injured his leg and needed to go to Cleveland for treatment.
"(Head pastor Rick Oaks) made sure I got there and back,'' he said. ''I'm 58, but Pastor Rick is like a big brother or father to me. My father was a deacon of a church, and the only time I went to my dad's church was when I went to his funeral."
Nearly 33 percent of people in Warren are living below the poverty level, with a median household income of $29,000. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines for 2013 include $15,510 household income for a two-person home and $19,530 for a three-person household.
Vukovich, who buys, prepares and serves meat, dairy, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit for Sunday brunches with her husband, George, said the shift in demographic and increase in the number of attendees doesn't signify that poverty in the Valley is getting worse.
"Some of them just need guidance,'' she said. ''It's amazing how when your stomach is full you're more open to ideas on where to lead your life.''
Area missions have also reported an influx in the number of people seeking their services.
"Probably in the past year we've had almost a 30 percent increase," said Michelle Beauchene, director of development and public relations for the Warren Family Mission.
"There's been an increase in all of our programs and all of our services ... and an increase in people who are facing homelessness and are entering addiction programs," she said.
Jim Echement, executive director of the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, said there has been a shift from middle-aged individuals to people in their 20s and 30s seeking help.
"In the past two years, we have gone from an average of 70 overnight clients to an average of 100 overnight clients," he said.
People enrolled in their 12-month program devote a year to turn their lives around, he said. Last year, four people enrolled; this year, there's 20, with more on a waiting list.
"More people are interested in turning their lives around, despite their current situations. They are really intent on changing," he said.
Jackson said he believes things are getting better.
"Prayer works wonders. Some people just come to eat. I go to serve God,'' he said.
Warren business owner and 4th Ward Councilman Greg Bartholomew said he has seen a decrease in homeless activity near Courthouse Square downtown.
"Usually this is the most prominent time when the weather is nice,'' he said. ''We would have anywhere from two to five on a daily basis, and now it looks like zero to two.
"Maybe they have found jobs, which is great; maybe they've relocated,'' he said. ''I can say we've seen less homeless this summer than we have in the past.''
Echement said it is hard to pinpoint a specific cause for poverty in the Valley.
"When I first got involved in this ministry almost 11 years ago, I tried to statistically match time of year, weather, economy ... there is no correlation," he said.
"In terms of their upbringing, they may be third generation in a homeless situation. It's something that caused the social economic downward spiral that just wouldn't stop until they hit bottom."
Beauchene said she believes low wages, a lack of jobs in the area and a lack of education contribute to the problem.
"I think that people are just making it and living check to check, so if something comes up and you have a family where there's one working person and it's a choice between eating and fixing your car ... and you need your car to get to work," she said.
Both missions offer numerous programs designed to act as a stepping stone for struggling families, but some people are harder to help than others.
"We're seeing more single-parent families as opposed to just single people, and it's tougher to get them placed. ... There are a lot more folks on the street today with severe diagnosed mental illness with no place to go," Echement said.
That's why cooperation between organizations such as churches, missions, charities and private organizations is key.
"We must collaborate. No organization is an island onto itself. We collaborate here in the Valley, beyond the Mahoning Valley," he said.
Beauchene said another challenge is that some people aren't ready to seek help.
Vukovich said some of the people who come for the Sunday meal are simply lonely or searching for a place to feel welcome.
"We serve food for the stomach but we have service for food for the soul," Vukovich said.
Tennant said, ''This is an integral part of the life of our church. They are a part of us. We just want them to know there's room at the table for them. We don't want people not coming because of discomfort. We want people coming exactly where they're living.
"None of us are experts at caring for people. Somehow, out of all of this, we are becoming a community. This is the first step in our connection to Warren," he said.