February 9, 2014

Struggling single mom uses experience in CEO job

Two years ago, she couldn’t even give her own children a Christmas. Now, as the CEO of Interfaith Ministries, she’s got a heart for other parents who need a helping hand with groceries, clothing and respect.

A little more than two years ago, Elizabeth Greenlee-Harrison was struggling to survive as a single mom emerging from an abusive marriage. She was struggling to feed her two young children and had no money for Christmas gifts, let alone the energy or interest to put up holiday decorations.

“I was a sobbing mess,” she said.

Filing for divorce “was incredibly difficult,” she said. “I don’t think I would have lasted much longer.”

She had supportive parents who would have helped if she had told them of her plight, she said. But shame and a desire to protect her family kept her silent.

Elizabeth, tapped last month to lead Modesto’s Interfaith Ministries, had recently returned to church, something she had put aside after her marriage in 2004. It wasn’t that she had turned her back on God, she said. Rather, she just became busy with other things, including a son born 18 months later, and a daughter a few years after that.

Then she ran into an old friend, one who had attended Christian camps with her.

“She encouraged me to come back to church,” Elizabeth said. “I was a little afraid; I don’t know why. But once I found it, it was like a tsunami.”

She rediscovered her faith and began attending a Bible study. Almost against her will, things about the abusive relationship started to come out.

“I remember the exact moment when people said things and did things that made me realize I was worth saving,” she said.

The brother of one friend asked if he could drop by some presents for her children. “He didn’t just bring a couple of gifts; he brought Christmas,” she said. The husbands of two other friends showed up one day to put up a tree and outside lights. Her Bible study group, which in past years had adopted a needy family in the community, surprised Elizabeth by adopting her family that year.

“It was a silly thing; my coffee pot had broken. They brought me a new pot. They gave us grocery gift cards, gas cards, money. They just blessed me over and over. For a period of over a year, groceries would just show up on my doorstep. That was the power that helped me.”

Her experiences are what make her the perfect fit for her new job as chief executive officer of Interfaith Ministries. To have made the transition from “sobbing mess” to helping others in similar circumstances in two years is nothing short of God’s blessing, she said.

“People who come here are taking the steps to feed their children. They’re humbling themselves to do what they have to do,” she said. “They’re all God’s children, people that we can love.”

Some people, she said, question whether giving food and clothes to people will help them emerge from hard circumstances or from habits that keep them impoverished.

“They have no idea,” she said. “They said, ‘You’re just giving them a handout.’ But treating them with dignity and meeting their needs is how people know you are pouring blessings on them. It’s how we are the hand of God. I can’t think about it without knowing God made me feel I was the luckiest girl in the world.”

The organization gives low-income people a five-day supply of groceries once a month. Each individual also gets to choose clothing. Interfaith also gives food to 62 other nonprofits and churches that provide food to various other groups, such as those that help feed the homeless or offer after-school snacks to schoolchildren. It delivers groceries to homebound residents and seniors, a service that includes a friendly volunteer for social interaction. And there are evolving programs aimed at improving nutrition and encouraging new moms to consider breastfeeding their babies.

Elizabeth is passionate about the agency and her work. She related the story of one family who had recently moved to the foothills. The father had found a job, but was having trouble feeding his family. They drove to Interfaith in a van during the lunch hour when everything was closed. The Interfaith staff went out and discovered how hungry they were.

“We were pulling out everything we could find that they could eat right away,” Elizabeth said, “peanut butter, jelly, bread, bananas. The parents had been feeding their children and not themselves, and had been rationing the food. They hadn’t eaten in two days. We don’t serve meals; we give out groceries that families can prepare at home. But they clearly needed food. The father fell to his knees. There were tears; they were so grateful.”

It’s experiences like that, she said, “that breaks my heart every day.” It’s also, she added, what makes her work so rewarding.

“I really know on a daily basis I’m doing this job because of the giant God behind me, holding me up. My prayer every day on the way to work is ‘May the work of my hands and the words of my mouth glorify you (God).’ That’s how I can be a single mom. That’s how I can do this job.”

Interfaith Ministries, she said, is truly an interfaith, nondenominational place.

“We don’t proselytize or hand out tracts. But I think the way Christians should be relating to others is through love. I don’t think there’s a better way to show God to them than through love.”

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