CHAMPAIGN — The line for free groceries at Salt & Light's food pantry stretched well outside the front doors, and volunteers inside were prepared for a crowd.
"The people who come in the doors, this is our opportunity to be Jesus to them," said Scott Rapp, a 61-year-old retired police officer who helps every week with the food distribution. "It doesn't get any better than that."
Rapp, of Champaign, said he started volunteering at Salt & Light after seeing the organization and the family of its executive director, Nathan Montgomery, featured on TV in a 2009 "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" program.
"Extreme Makeover" delivered a new home for the Montgomery family and improvements to Salt & Light's building at 1512 W. Anthony Drive, C.
The program also served to increase awareness of Salt & Light and its work, which brought in more volunteers, more people looking for help and about $100,000 more in donations in 2010, Montgomery said.
Salt & Light served about 245 families a week before the "Extreme Makeover" program and about 60 percent more after.
But the increased giving dropped back down again in 2011, Montgomery said, and while it's inched back up again since then, it hasn't reached the 2010 level.
Salt & Light's current budget of $370,000 is largely funded by donations, and only one-third of the support comes from regular monthly givers, Montgomery said. The organization finished last year barely in the black with the help of some donations that came in the last quarter of the year.
With so few donors contributing on a regular basis, it's hard to plan and budget, Montgomery said. So in hope of boosting the number of regular monthly donors, Salt & Light has launched its first fundraising campaign, called Light the Way.
"Our campaign is trying to remind people we're here and create a more stable base," Montgomery said.
Filling a need
Salt & Light, which opened its doors in 2004, currently serves about 375 families a week at or below the poverty line at its Wednesday weekly food pantry.
Since opening its doors, the organization said, it's provided nearly 4 million pounds of food in the community, plus nearly 1 million pieces of clothing.
Buying food for the pantry through the Eastern Illinois Foodbank helps stretch donation dollars, Montgomery said, but the need can still sometimes exceed the supply.
The food pantry has seen a sharp increase in demand in the past month and has been running out in the last hour of the weekly giveaways, he said.
In addition to the food pantry, Salt & Light conducts a weekly clothing closet to distribute donated clothing and furniture to people in need and offers financial literacy education, a computer lab and a spiritual ministry.
Marie Brown, 52, of Urbana, turned to Salt & Light for food help soon after it opened and quickly became a regular volunteer for the organization.
"It's a good thing to do, helping others," she said.
A certified nursing assistant who does home care, Brown said she also delivers food to the elderly and others who can't come to Salt & Light.
She calls Salt & Light "a good place."
"I love it," she added. "I'm here faithfully."
Rapp said he was looking for volunteer opportunities when he saw Salt & Light on "Extreme Makeover."
Through his work for the organization, he has had opportunities not only to help people with food needs, but to pray with them, he said.
"I just love this place," Rapp added. "This really is a slice of heaven."
While Salt & Light is a Christian organization, Montgomery said, it's not necessary to be a Christian to volunteer there. The organization welcomes anyone, and Montgomery refers to its small staff and volunteers as a family.
Montgomery, who is now 35, was just 26 when he became Salt & Light's executive director. He once worked in management for a medical supplies company and a fast food restaurant, but helped launch this organization because he felt called to service by God to do more with his life, he said.
Montgomery also recalls growing up and being encouraged to work to get ahead and believe that his lot in life depends on his choices.
Now, while he doesn't discount the value of hard work, he said, he has come to see that sometimes life just happens. Plants close. People get sick.
"People find themselves in situations they would have never dreamed of," he said.
Montgomery said Salt & Light strives to make people coming for help feel welcomed, loved and never judged.
At the same time, he said, Salt & Light has been taking a closer look at what it is accomplishing in people's lives over the long term.
The nation spends an increasing amount of money on poverty assistance, but the needs driven by poverty don't diminish, he said.
"We think we can do a better job of affecting lasting change," he added.
How? Salt & Light is contemplating changes that would limit the number of times people can come in for food and clothing assistance each month unless they're willing to work individually with a case worker who can help them focus on how to move their lives forward, Montgomery said.
"It's about equipping people," he explained.
Giving out food and clothing is important, Montgomery said, "but if all we ever do is hand things out, how much help are we providing?"
To make changes, Salt & Light would need to buy case management software and boost volunteers, he said.
The organization currently runs with three full-time and two part-time staff members, but its leaders are reluctant to add more to overhead expenses, Montgomery said.
Salt & Light is also considering a move to better meet its space needs, he said.
The current building, which is leased, has just under 10,000 square feet, but Salt & Light could use twice that much space and a place to meet privately with its clients, Montgomery said.
"We're maxed out right now," he added.
Montgomery said he looked at the former ISA building nearby, at 1400 W. Anthony Drive, but no decisions have been made on a move.
"We're kind of thinking about it and praying about it," he said.
To learn more about Salt & Light, volunteer or donate to its fundraising campaign, see the website at www.saltandlightministry.org.
Or call the Salt & Light office at 355-5654.