All work, no pay – Aid ministry thrives under volunteer director

DALLAS—For the past 15 years, Judy Rorrie has worked 60 hours a week as executive director of North Dallas Shared Ministries: managing an annual budget of about $1 million, directing some 500-plus volunteers, overseeing an emergency aid operation and food pantry, and maintaining relationships with the 50-plus congregations that support the ministry. And now, at age 70, she has no plans to retire.

Judy Rorrie, a member of Northaven United Methodist in Dallas, has served as executive director of North Dallas Shared Ministries since 1997 – but has never received a paycheck. UMR PHOTO BY MARY JACOBS

But here’s what makes Ms. Rorrie’s story really extraordinary: For all that she does, she has never received a paycheck.

“She’s devoted an enormous amount of time to NDSM,” said Dorothy Timmins, a fellow member of Dallas’ Northaven United Methodist Church, who volunteers in the ministry’s clothes closet. “She has this wonderful attitude that inspires other people to say, ‘I could do that.’”

“I’m somewhat in awe,” said the Rev. Eric Folkerth, Ms. Rorrie’s pastor at Northaven. “She’s a fireball of energy.”

Ms. Rorrie first began volunteering at North Dallas Shared Ministries (NDSM) almost 30 years ago, pitching in part time as she and her husband, Colin, were raising three daughters, then ages 6-13. Now the daughters are grown, and the couple has six grandchildren. But Ms. Rorrie is still at it.

“I just gradually got more and more involved,” she said.

The ministry began in 1983, when five Dallas area clergy decided to pool their resources to tackle a frustrating problem—how to best assist people who came to their churches asking for help. North Dallas Shared Ministries was formed as an independent non-profit agency, and by 1986, 33 congregations of various denominations were supporting the ministry.

Ms. Rorrie stepped in as interim director in the mid-1990s, and by 1997, she was officially named executive director. Today, NDSM occupies a 20,322 square-foot building on the northwest side of Dallas, and serves more than 33,000 people annually in its 20 ZIP code service area.

Fifty-three congregations of different denominations and faith traditions—including Orthodox, Baptist, Presbyterian, Jewish, Unitarian, Episcopal, Nazarene, and eight United Methodist churches, among others—send donations and supply most of the ministry’s 500-plus volunteers. Ms. Rorrie knows almost all of them by name.

She also can also tick off, from memory, the myriad ways that faith-related groups pitch in. Temple Emanu El, a synagogue in Dallas, holds a food drive every year during the High Holidays. Volunteers from the First Unitarian Church staff the English as a second language (ESL) program. Elementary students at the Episcopal School of Dallas bring a busload of groceries every year around Thanksgiving. Members of two nearby Catholic churches, St. Rita’s and St. Monica’s, collect bread from grocery stores and bakeries around town every week and deliver it to the food pantry. A member of Preston Hollow Presbyterian sends over employees of his small business—on his dime—to handle building repair and maintenance chores. Virtually all of the 53 covenant congregations kick in money and send volunteers.

“Our volunteers come from a diversity of religious backgrounds, but the differences don’t surface,” Ms. Rorrie said. “We’re kind to one another and we appreciate each other.”

Ms. Rorrie reports regularly to the congregations, and emphasizes how, with its low overhead and its focus on helping those in need, congregations can get the most bang for their charitable bucks.

“My goal [for the congregations] is for them to understand that this is an extension of their church or temple,” she said.

Judy Rorrie greets Marilyn Schroeder, a volunteer in North Dallas Shared Ministry’s Clothes Closet, which provides free or low-cost clothing items to clients in need.

From the beginning, the ministry has provided food and cash to help with rent and utilities, to recipients who qualify; under Ms. Rorrie’s lead, the ministry has added many more services over the years: bus passes, vouchers for gasoline, clothing, eyeglasses, job counseling, tax preparation help and classes in English as a second language (ESL). On Fridays, needy people over age 60 can pick up a week’s supply of groceries, without waiting or filling out paperwork. (Volunteers do verify the seniors’ income once a year.) The total value of the services and goods provided to low-income clients last year was estimated at around $3 million.

“Judy is constantly adding new things to the ministry,” said Mr. Folkerth. “She’s very realistic and very targeted. She looks for what will actually be helpful.”

In 2000, the ministry added a free medical clinic, and shortly after that, a free dental clinic. On the mornings when the dental clinic is open—four days a month—people line up as early as 3:30 a.m., hoping to get one of the available appointments.

“They’re waiting for extractions,” said Ms. Rorrie. “They’re in pain.”

While NDSM’s first aim is to provide emergency aid, Ms. Rorrie ultimately aims to help steer clients toward self-sufficiency. Thus the clothes closet provides clothes for job interviews—and the dental clinic, by providing cleanings and restorative work, helps boost needy clients’ employability.

“For most people, employment is the key to stability,” Ms. Rorrie said.

With only three paid staffers—an administrative assistant, a medical assistant, and a part-time medical director—NDSM’s overhead is low, and there’s very little bureaucracy involved in adding services.

“We expanded our ESL because one or two people were interested in doing that,” Ms. Rorrie said. “If we decide something should be done, we can do it.”

The ministry keeps careful records of interviews with clients, of the cash, clothes and food distributed, and volunteer hours worked. Every evening, Ms. Rorrie reviews the files of every client who came that day. Volunteers marvel at her ability to recall names and details for almost all of them.

While the needs of low-income folks are paramount, Ms. Rorrie says, NDSM also ministers to its volunteers. Most of the volunteers are retired, and many are widowed. Some volunteers have children, and they can get their children involved, too.

North Dallas Shared Ministry’s food pantry supplies free food to low-income people in the agency’s service area. The food comes from the North Texas Food Bank and from donations from the ministry’s 53 covenant congregations.

Ann and Glyn Jordan, members of Highland Park United Methodist in Dallas, discovered the ministry about eight years ago when Glyn Jordan came to NDSM to get a flu shot. He had just retired, and the couple was looking for a place to volunteer. Glyn helps with interviewing clients and with job counseling; Ann volunteers at the ministry’s reception desk.

Inspired by Ms. Rorrie’s example, Ann Jordan has enlisted donations and other help from members of her Sunday school class at church.

“Judy would never ask you to do something that she wouldn’t work twice as hard at herself,” said Ms. Jordan. “She’s a doer.”

Ms. Jordan added that she likes the camaraderie among volunteers at the ministry. Some are affluent, and some are of fairly meager means, “but we all work together,” she said. “No one has any more status than anyone else. That’s a very Methodist thing.”

Ms. Rorrie’s job sometimes involves saying no to clients who ask for help. Recently, on a sunny Wednesday morning in January, Ms. Rorrie pored over a client’s file while two volunteers, Lucille Dir and Floyd Henderson, looked over her shoulder.

The client wanted help with her rent, but had a spotty work record and a heavy load of debt. When she’d visited a month earlier, NDSM volunteers had urged her to apply for food stamps and Medicaid, but she hadn’t done either. And, Ms. Rorrie noted, the client had left the agency without picking up the food she had requested—and which volunteers had prepared—at her last visit.

“That doesn’t speak well of her,” she said. “The need obviously couldn’t have been that great. I don’t think we can help her.”

Clients who don’t have a job or other source of steady income don’t get monetary help until they find a way to meet basic expenses—either with a job, or by obtaining regular payments, such as disability. Most of the cash assistance goes to working poor families that are basically living within their means, but don’t have the cushion to handle an emergency, such as an illness, a costly car repair, or a long bout of bad weather that halts construction work.

“We’re generous in providing rent assistance,” Ms. Rorrie said. “We have the stats to show that. But we’re not an entitlement program. If we pay the rent this month, and they’re evicted anyway next month, then we haven’t been good stewards.”

Clients asking for help with rent or utility bills must submit paychecks and a list of their regular expenses. Volunteer interviewers check their stories by calling employers and apartment managers. Paperwork for clients who lied about their situation gets moved into a green file folder, and that’s taken into consideration if they visit again.

“Judy is dedicated to helping people, but she does not let them take advantage,” said volunteer Ms. Timmins.

Ask her why she’s willing to devote so much time and effort helping people in need, and likely you’ll find Ms. Rorrie at a loss for words. For someone who walks the walk, she really doesn’t talk the talk. She’s been fortunate in her own life, she says, and she’s grateful. She enjoys the challenge. And, by not accepting a paycheck, she feels emboldened to ask others to help, too.

“I could never take any pay, because [almost] everybody here is a volunteer,” she said. “It gives me credibility, and it’s a heckuva a lot easier to ask them to give of their time and talents this way.”

And there’s one other reason, she admits with a wry smile.

“I like to run things,” Ms. Rorrie said. “Sometimes I say I’m a benevolent dictator.”

And that’s a job that she probably couldn’t find elsewhere, paid or no.

“Nobody’s looking for a benevolent dictator,” she said.


Mary Jacobs

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