Desiree Philbee moved to Louisville from Northern California in 2012 to care for her sick grandmother. She was the only remaining member of her family in the area, and Philbee knew someone needed to be there for her “Granny.” She soon realized the task was bigger than she could have imagined.
“It sounded good on paper, but Granny was in the process of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and deteriorating very quickly. She needed to be moved six times in 18 months,” said Philbee. The veterinary tech started college and got two jobs, but when one of them closed down unexpectedly, Philbee was caught off guard.
“I was hesitant to reach out to my family across the country because they had very few resources. Here I was, smart and educated, had a car and was willing to work,” said Philbee. “It never crossed my mind that I was going to be in need of food, money or shelter, but when that job closed, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Unfortunately, like thousands of people every day, Philbee came to that critical juncture where she had run out of money and had to decide what bill she could afford not to pay. “I couldn’t afford to pay the late fees, either, so I decided to pay all my bills but then I had no food,” she said.
Being new to Louisville, Philbee said she wasn’t sure where to turn. “We had reached out to a lawyer and a caseworker, but that wasn’t that helpful with the day to day stuff. My pastor had retired, so I wasn’t part of a church and I didn’t want to go in and say, ‘Hey I haven’t been part of your church before, but I’m hungry.’ I felt ashamed. I didn’t want to go to a soup kitchen because I felt they were for people hungrier than me and deserved it more.”
Clare Rutz Wallace, executive director at South Louisville Community Ministries (SLCM), sees people like Desiree every day. “The families we serve are often in crisis – something can happen – a car wreck or a car breaks down – lose a job when company is downsizing – wife gets cancer or needs expensive medical treatments – a multitude of things. A lot of us are close to that crisis point and living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes it is just a matter of that one stroke of bad luck,” she said.
Wallace said she hopes her organization, which serves a very diverse population in the South corridor of Louisville, can shed light on what it looks like to be in need. “Because people see those panhandling who may be homeless downtown, they think that’s who we’re talking about, and that is a face of poverty, but it’s just one. The understanding we hope to share with people about poverty is the lack of choices people have, and that the privilege we all have comes from the amount of mobility we experience, financial and social,” she said. “Remember, people who are on fixed incomes are not ‘welfare queens.’ They are people simply unable to work because they are disabled, or they are taking care of their daughter who has schizophrenia, or maybe they need a machine to breathe.”
The challenge is that the model of caring for community is changing, said Wallace. “Our churches, which we traditionally relied on, are getting smaller, and communities are getting bigger. How do we evolve from that community church model of ‘those who have more take care of those who have less’ to a larger scale? That’s the role of a community ministry – to figure out how to do that in the best way.”
For Philbee, her turning point came when a woman she met who had also been caretaker for an elderly relative directed her to SLCM. “I never knew it existed and I didn’t need much. She took me down there and I got an egg crate-full of food. It was simple, but it literally changed my life. It got me through to that next paycheck. They were so kind and willing, with no questions asked.”
SLCM provides services on a practical level like the food pantry and emergency assistance partnerships with utility companies and with the city for rent assistance for those facing eviction. Wallace said she hopes partnerships like that will still continue after the impact of the city’s budget cuts becomes clearer.
“We make sure we help people connect the dots to their next opportunity. We are part of the new United Community referral network just announced by Metro United Way. Instead of just handing someone a flyer and saying you need to get to this place across town and I hope that works out for you, we are having a conversation–Can you get there at that time? Do you have child care? Our referral is a warm hand-off, not just a piece of paper. Frankly, living in poverty is complicated and provides multiple challenges, not to mention the predatory companies who make it more difficult. Unfortunately, the most expensive thing to do is be poor.”
For Philbee now, she has been inspired by her one life-changing experience that gave her hope when she needed it most. “There was that brief moment when I was thinking, oh my god, I’m going to lose it all. Just to be able to get food and pay bills and not get in a hole, it literally kept me going,” she said. Philbee came in one time for food and never had to go back. Now Philbee is doing what she can to help others who are struggling.
She gives donations to SLCM, including food. She also cooks and helps feed the homeless through a local, grassroots organization, Hip Hop Cares. “Having the ability to be in a position to give back is huge,” she said. “I love being that person for other people.”
Her grandmother passed away in 2017, but Philbee is grateful for the five extra years she got to be with her. “It’s priceless,” she said. “I think it is important to tell my story because I’m sure somebody out there doesn’t know how to ask for help, or doesn’t think they’re worthy of help.”
Today, Philbee works at the Downtown Animal Hospital, and her future is bright. She is married, and she says she never wants to leave Louisville because of organizations like SLCM. In fact, Philbee has spoken at a fundraiser on behalf of the ministry.
“SLCM is so under-recognized, underappreciated and underfunded. They do great work there. They will never make you feel any kind of way other than welcome, happy, taken care of and accepted.”