'Extreme' exposure paying dividends for Champaign charity

'Extreme' exposure paying dividends for Champaign charity

CHAMPAIGN – Donation bins overflow, shelves are stocked with food, the place is definitely spiffier – and the line of people needing help is longer than ever.

That's what a little extreme TV exposure can do.

Salt and Light Ministries has been a popular place since its director, Nathan Montgomery, was chosen for "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

As Montgomery and his family took questions at an Aug. 26 news conference in Philo, the day after their new home was revealed, 350 families lined up for food at Salt and Light in Champaign – a record for the 6-year-old charity.

In all, 23,000 pounds of food were handed out.

Ordinarily, 200 to 250 families come for the weekly food distribution, and hundreds more to get free clothes or household items. Because of the overwhelming turnout, the charity is giving out only food for the time being.

"This whole thing has been unreal," Montgomery said Wednesday, his first full day back at work.

While Salt and Light has grown exponentially since its founding in 2003, "there were still plenty of people out there who didn't know anything about it. There's a lot less of those people now," he said.

He's bracing for more once the show airs Oct. 25 during National Volunteer Week, as "ABC warned us to be prepared for an onslaught."

Local publicity generated money, clothes, food and volunteers for Salt and Light, including commitments of at least $50,000 in donations. That's "huge" considering its bare-bones $225,000 annual budget, Montgomery said. Last week he was still sorting through the larger-than-usual pile of donations that came in during his absence.

"Certainly we've had a huge influx of new people giving," he said. "There's just a lot more envelopes.

"We've had a lot more people express interest in coming out to volunteer," he added, and clothes and other donations have poured in. "It's a little bit overwhelming. We were already kind of maxed out."

Montgomery is still getting acclimated after a whirlwind week of filming, press conferences and trip to Disney World courtesy of ABC. Even when the family got back to town, they weren't allowed to read newspapers, use cell phones or watch TV until the home was revealed.

He marvels at the makeover at Salt and Light, where crews brightened up the warehouse distribution and food storage area, built additional shelves, repainted almost the entire interior, and remodeled three rooms: the reception area, Montgomery's office and a conference room.

He hadn't seen it in person until Aug. 27, two days after his home reveal, though the family was given a video tour.

"I walked in and said, 'Holy cow!'" he said, marveling at the leather couches, side tables and sisal rug in the reception area. "It's like walking into a plastic surgeon's office."

Next door, in Montgomery's office, the only holdovers from the "before" picture are a couple of black office chairs and his prized possession: an autographed Illini basketball from the 2005 NCAA championship game (purchased for Montgomery by his board chairman at a charity auction).

The new U-shaped wooden desk is flanked by a credenza with contemporary lamps and framed photos of his children. On the walls, his panoramic photo of "Paint the Hall Orange" night has been supplemented by two others: one of the UI Quad, another of the 2008 Rose Bowl game.

One burnt orange wall is stenciled with the words, "The need is great ... the response is greater."

As with all makeovers, the room was decluttered; the contents of Montgomery's old desk are still in a plastic tub in the utility room, waiting for him to sort them out.

Around the corner, the blue-and-khaki multipurpose room has rows of new black chairs for the weekly prayer service. The front wall features the Salt and Light rising-sun logo. The old conference table was painted black and stenciled with the charity's mission statement. A new flat-screen TV hangs above it.

His favorite part of the makeover? The warehouse, now painted in bright blue, green and white stripes with a banner reading, "Let the light shine by helping those in need." Makeover crews even organized clothes by color.

"I love what they did," he said. "We want to create this environment where people feel valued. It says you care about the place where they come, and so you care about them, too. It puts a smile on my face, and it helps to lift you up."

In the pantry, four new Kenmore stainless steel refrigerators and two freezer units help preserve perishable foods. The metal shelves were painted blue, and another row was added for storage – handy for the tons, literally, of food donated during the ABC-sponsored food drive.

As volunteers bustled around last week, filling grocery carts with bread, meat, produce, and macaroni and cheese, an associate of Montgomery's marveled at the variety and amount available,

Sarah Kosanke, assistant manager at the soon-to-open Old Chicago restaurant, said she used to be a social worker near Gary, Ind., where families would sometimes have to visit four different food banks to get enough supplies for a full meal. Eligibility criteria were strict, and people usually got "odds and ends" like a can of beans and a sack of flour, she said.

"This is awesome," she said of the huge boxes of tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, potatoes and cantaloupe. "You can actually make a complete meal, and use leftovers."

"It's a good week," agreed volunteer Mary Bosch.

Stephanie Taylor of Rantoul was 73rd in line for food Wednesday, after getting No. 107 the previous week. Taylor, who came with her two sons, ages 1 and 2, has been laid off since last February, when she lost her job as a payroll administrator at the Meadowbrook Farms pork plant.

"I worked with a lot of good people. Most of them are still looking for work," she said.

She gets unemployment benefits, but most of that goes to rent and household expenses. Food stamps help, but life is a struggle with two children in diapers. She visits the community food pantry in Rantoul once a month and Salt and Light every week.

"This is just a stepping stone," said Taylor, who hopes to go to cosmetology school. "I never would have seen me where I am now. Everybody needs help sometime."

Montgomery said the greatest gift from "Extreme Makeover" wasn't the new house, or the improvements at Salt and Light. It was "being able to see in such a huge way that we are surrounded by people who love us and care about us," he said. "We're not alone."

"We know we're having some kind of impact, but you're never sure how much," he added. "This illuminates all of that."