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Westside Ministries feeling the sting of down times
Students in the summer dance class at Westside Ministries practice for a parent’s recital on Thursday. - photo by ANDREA GOODWIN / The Journal

“What do you want to do with all of that yogurt? We’re using it right?” Lydio Banana asked. “So long as we can keep it somewhere,” JoLynn DiGrazia answered.

The two directors were at Westside Ministries deciding what to do with a shipment of donated food. Although the donation was welcome and needed to feed children who spend the day at the ministry, their kitchen does not have a refrigerator large enough to store bulk amounts of food. They sometimes re-distribute donations that they cannot store or use right away.

The small kitchen at the ministry is well suited for 4H baking projects, but not designed to feed the hundreds of children who attend summer sports camps and dance classes at the local outreach center.

“We’ve never been in the business of giving out food,” said DiGrazia, founder and director of Westside Ministries.

The ministry started feeding children when they realized some of their children were coming to Bible clubs and dance classes complaining of hunger. Although the organization had no budget for food service, they decided to start cooking meals for children who did not get enough to eat at home. The ministry grows much of its own food through their 4H club. The approximately 70 children in the club maintain a large garden and some fruit trees on part of the Columbia street property.

“When this property was given to us 11 years ago, it did not look like this,” DiGrazia said.

The children plant, water, weed, and take care of their garden and small fruit grove. They show between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables at the Stanislaus County Fair every year. They can as much food as possible both for showing at the fair and for eating later in the year. DiGrazia said that the canning gives the kids something to do over the summer. The advantage of having canned food on site is that it doesn’t need to be kept in cold storage.

What the ministry really needs is a walk-in refrigerator/freezer to store the perishable foods they receive as donations. DiGrazia estimated that purchasing and installing an industrial refrigerator, including necessary electrical work, would cost between $20,000 and $25,000. The ministry does not have the money for the addition.

With the recent decline in the economy, Westside Ministries is surviving on a month-to-month basis. They recently opened up a dance studio building for their Center for Urban Performance and Service, a program that focuses on the healing power of dance and the arts to help Westside children, many of whom have lived through extreme poverty or abuse.

“We really believe that the arts heal kids,” DiGrazia said.

The new building, however, cost more than Westside Ministries had anticipated. They had to re-do a city street and install a parking lot along with the building. Westside Ministries is now looking at a reduction in youth programs because of their financial need.

“We have had to cut back terrifically on all aspects,” DiGrazia said.

Westside Ministries has year-round dance and Bible study groups for children in the Westside area of Turlock. They serve children mainly in the school areas of Cunningham, Wakefield, and Osborn schools. They also distribute coats and Christmas gifts annually. During the summer, the ministry runs weekly sports camps for youth in the area. They don’t have enough money to staff the last week of basketball camp, and they are considering canceling it.

The staff at Westside Ministries is sure that the programs will survive, but they need volunteers to keep things going. They need volunteers to help with 4H projects, someone with mechanic skills to help fix the church bus, someone with a Class A drivers license with passenger endorsement to drive the bus, and anyone who can help out with children’s activities. They need volunteers to help with baking projects next week, to help children with canning, and anyone who is willing to help out around the church.

“If someone has a skill of any kind, we can fit them in,” DiGrazia said.

DiGrazia said that she has seen miracles happen. One day at Costco, DiGrazia was purchasing food for children at Westside Ministries when she realized that the credit card she was going to use was maxed out. She reached into her purse to get her personal check book, deciding to pay for the groceries that she knew she couldn’t afford. Before she could write the check, a man she had never met before offered to pay for the groceries.

On another occasion, there was no money for the pizzas that DiGrazia had promised sports campers for the next day. She decided not to tell them about it, and prayed for the best. The next day a volunteer with the Salvation Army drove up with 20 boxes of pizza for the kids.
“Every time I have trusted God, he has astounded me,” DiGrazia said.

To contact Westside Ministries about volunteer opportunities, call 667-8593. Donations can be made by mailing a check to Westside Ministries, P.O. Box 354, Turlock, CA 95381.
To contact Andrea Goodwin, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2003.