Every Wednesday morning, a small crowd gathers outside The Bridge, a cozy house behind Monroe Street United Methodist Church, awaiting a turn to go "shopping."
When they're done, they leave with bags of groceries, shirts, blouses, shoes, coats, bus tokens, a blood-pressure check - all free - and a sense of dignity.
"They know you by name when you come through the door, no matter how many come through, and that makes you feel like you're not part of a herd," Horace Reynolds said.
Like many people in this stressed-out economy, the 59-year-old disabled Air Force veteran is going through a tough time. He and his two sons, ages 8 and 10, are living in an East Toledo shelter. He's out of work, nearly out of money, and coming to The Bridge weekly for a helping hand.
At the Toledo Gospel Rescue Mission's Mission Mall, opened in October on Ashland Avenue, Roxanne Batway shops for free.
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"They take time. They listen. There are some things they are not able or capable of doing, but at least they listen to you and try to refer you to some place," he said. "It makes a difference when you're struggling and have no other options."
The Bridge, an outreach of the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center, is one of many local or-ganizations working hard to give struggling Toledoans a lift.
Two miles away in another central-city ministry, along a ramshackle stretch of Jefferson Avenue, the Toledo Gospel Rescue Mission opens it doors and cupboards to all who knock.
"When it's below 32 degrees, we never turn anyone away," said the Rev. Tom Clapsaddle, executive director. "We'll get the couches ready, pull out some cots, and when those are full, we've got blankets and pillows and padded carpet."
Clara Petty, standing, executive director of The Bridge, talks with George Saunders, Sr., and the Rev. Karen Shepler. The Bridge was founded by Monroe Street United Methodist Church.
The center's array of facilities - separate housing for men, women, single mothers with children, and people transitioning out of the shelter - typically accommodate up to 83, but they've squeezed in 106 on some wintry nights.
The locals also know they can fill their bellies at the mission. Toledo Gospel Rescue Mission served more than 80,000 meals so far this year.
And the total cost for providing those meals was just under $3,000, thanks to donations, Mr. Clapsaddle said.
"We eat on the 'manna principle,'•" he said with a grin. "Whatever God drops from the sky that day, we eat it. And it's usually pretty good."
Tuesday, for example, the dozens who came to the mission for lunch were treated to T-bone steaks with mashed potatoes, corn, and salads - leftovers donated by a caterer.
"If it comes in today, we eat it today," Mr. Clapsaddle said. "The most we keep something is a day or two. But a lot of people don't even know we're here. We don't advertise. Most people hear about us through word of mouth."
In October, the ministry opened a "Mission Mall" a few blocks away on Ashland Avenue. Similar to The Bridge, people who come to the Mission Mall can "shop" for free. The mall is open Saturdays from noon to 2 p.m.
Everyone is allowed to take up to five items of clothing plus shoes, a coat, and a blanket. In two months, the facility has given away nearly 8,000 pieces of clothing.
Part of the mall's success can be attributed to the national "Warm Coats and Warm Hearts Drive," sponsored by Burlington Coat Factory and the Good Morning America TV show. People who bring gently used coats to Burlington can get a discount on their new purchases, and the coats are then donated to Toledo Gospel Rescue Mission.
"We probably got close to 600 coats from them already," Mr. Clapsaddle said last week.
At The Bridge, Executive Director Clara Petty is seeing a lot of new faces lately.
Many people who held steady jobs for years are suddenly out of work and looking for help, many for the first time.
"When you come through the door, you're so nervous because you've never done this before," Ms. Petty said. "One of the things we want to do is to make people feel comfortable because this is your situation today, and it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be your situation tomorrow. We're going to make sure we do all we can do to help you get back on your feet. If it is in our power, we are going to try to do it."
People crowd into a front room decorated with a Christmas tree, waiting for their names to be called. There's coffee and pastry. In one corner, a nurse, Cindy D'Amato, takes blood pressure readings and offers referrals as needed.
Down the hall filling out paperwork is George Saunders, who will turn 78 on the Fourth of July.
He has a "Retired Navy" ball cap on his head and a sly smile on his face.
"My name is George Bush," he tells a photographer, chuckling.
A Korean War veteran, Mr. Saunders has been coming to The Bridge for a couple of years.
"Oh, I love it. I love it here. People treat me nice," he said.
The Bridge was founded by Monroe Street United Methodist Church in the early 1970s and has since become part of the separate, nonprofit Monroe Street Neighborhood Center.
The center also operates ministries that provide work clothes for men and women entering the job market, a "Dad's Club" for fathers to spend quality time with their children, an open gym, a computer lab, and a high school diploma equivalency program.
The dedication of the volunteers at The Bridge is extraordinary, according to Ms. Petty.
Linda Furney, a former state senator, picks up a carload of donated bread every Monday from Panera on Talmadge Road and drops it off at The Bridge.
"I like that it's so connected with people, that they've really been able to take care of people without getting consumed by bureaucracy," Ms. Furney said.
Terina Boone rides her pink bicycle to the center every weekday, sorting, hanging, and preparing clothing and other donated items to get ready for when it opens on Wednesdays.
"It's a very joyful place," Ms. Boone, 37, said. "You give the kids a little toy and see their faces light up."
Ms. Petty said only top-quality clothing makes it onto the racks.
"If I won't wear it, then don't put it up. These people need to be treated with dignity and respect," she said.
At Toledo Gospel Rescue Mission's Mission Mall, clothing is also carefully sorted and displayed as if in a retail store. The mall also carries some household goods, toys, furniture, exercise equipment, and whatever other items are donated.
"We're just trying to be a blessing," Mr. Clapsaddle said. "Just find a need and try to plug it up, you know?"
Toledo Gospel Rescue Mission, founded in 1955, was a men's-only facility until opening Rebekah's Haven, a women's shelter, in a neighboring house in February, 2004. The second-floor now houses single mothers with children.
The mission has a transitional housing facility nearby for five men who are one step away from independence.
Earlier this year, it added an Outreach Center on Phillips Avenue in West Toledo when a church closed and donated the building.
The Outreach Center is used for Bible studies, fatherhood classes, church services, meetings, and community meals. It needed a parking lot right away, at a cost of $6,000, and raised the mission's monthly budget by about $1,600.
But Mr. Clapsaddle felt the costs were worth it because of the ministry opportunities.
"When God opens the door, I run. Sometimes it scares people around here half to death," he said with a laugh. "But I'm not one to sit on my hands."
Mary Clapsaddle, Tom's wife, who helps run the ministry, said the mission is facing a $22,000 deficit in the $250,000 annual budget this year.
"The finances fell off a little bit and the needs keep on growing, but I'm not going to worry about it," Mr. Clapsaddle said.
"God's carried us for going on 55 years, and what's to stop him from taking care of us the next 55 years?"
Contact David Yonke at: