Paula Shearer knows her life could have turned out very differently.
Born in the former Yugoslavia, the Springfield Township woman escaped with her family into Austria after World War II. But it was only the kindness of an American soldier that spared her from potentially a far worse fate under the harsh Communist rule.
The family did not have the proper paperwork, and the soldier wasn't supposed to let them pass. But he did. Shearer, 71, carried that kindness in her heart when she arrived in York County many years later.
"I knew I wanted to do for others what they did for us and that is why I am so involved now with missions," she said. "Because I understand what it is like not to have."
In her most recent endeavor, Shearer helped found HieroGround, a southern York County ministry that helps the poor. The organizers wanted to name the nonprofit ministry "Higher Ground," but that name was taken.
Jerry Murray, another founder of HieroGround, was making a good living selling real estate when he felt called to do something more meaningful. So he toured the York Rescue Mission with his wife to get ideas on serving the poor in the name of God.
"I came away from there with a vision for this ministry and the vision is for churches to come together," said Murray, of Hopewell Township.
That was about two years ago. Since then, HieroGround has formed a board of directors and a network of eight churches who supply about 120 volunteers.
'Can't help everybody'
A little more than a year ago, HieroGround took on its first case: an elderly man in Springfield Township with cancer, and many other medical issues, who lived alone in an old mobile home in need of repair.
Volunteers from four local churches provided transportation, companionship, house cleaning and repairs, shopping and counseling. Several volunteers worked together to repair holes in his floor, and replace his bedroom carpet, kitchen floor, and bathtub.
Murray found the man by calling the Hope Ministry in New Freedom, which serves cancer patients, to volunteer to help one of their clients.
The Rev. Tim Allen, senior pastor at Glenview Alliance Church in Springfield Township, said the HieroGround program fits his congregation well.
"It's easy for churches sometimes to get ingrown," he said. "This gives us a tangible way to reach outward. Some of these people may never attend services, but they still have needs and we want to help them."
Glenview did a city mission in Philadelphia in the past, but it didn't work out so well. "It's difficult to plug into something like that when it's so far away," Allen said. "Because this is southern York County, it makes it a good fit."
According to statistics from Lutheran Social Services, there is a high rate of poverty outside the City of York. The LSS Bridge out of Poverty program figures show that 64 percent of all York County households earn less than $40,000.
When Murray saw that statistic, he knew HieroGround was needed.
To date, the ministry has helped about 30 people with home repairs, donated furniture, provided rides to appointments and even given a few bucks to pay a bill. The needy are referred by churches and other organizations, Murray said, and while most want money, the organization doesn't have many greenbacks to give.
"We can't help everybody, we know that," he said.
Ideally, the organization is looking to give people a lift up so they are able to get through life's rough patches, Murray said.
HieroGround is about as big as it can get without a permanent office and full-time staff, Murray said. It has the former via donated space in Stewartstown. Now the organization is looking for the latter - a $100,000 annual revenue stream.
"The challenge I have as the current executive director . . . is I can only do so much on a part-time basis," Murray said. "Once we have the infrastructure in place to have a full-time office, we should take off."
The plan is to raise the money and use it to pay for a staff of three - an executive director and two caseworkers to meet and do background checks of people in need. Murray said he will not be a candidate for executive director.
Although she has been in the United States for 55 years, Shearer said she can still identify with needy people who call the ministry. Before moving to York County at age 15, her family didn't have much food, nor did she have her own bed.
She remembers having to share a banana with a sibling because her family couldn't afford two.
"We get calls of all sorts and it really does make a difference for people," she said. "Whether it's elderly or young, I'm really glad that we can be there."
The following churches are supporting the HieroGround ministry in southern York County:
Christ United Methodist Church, Jacobus
Glenview Alliance Church, Springfield Township
Grace United Methodist, Shrewsbury Township
Immanuel United Methodist Church, Glen Rock
Mt. Zion Potosi United Methodist, Springfield Township
Stewartstown Baptist Church, Hopewell Township
Stewartstown United Methodist Church, Stewartstown
St. Paul (Mt. Pleasant) Lutheran Church, North Hopewell Township
For more details, or to make a tax-deductible donation to HieroGround, call Jerry Murray at 717-887-1677, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is www.hieroground.org.
Meet the Need plan
Jerry Murray has a longer-range goal for the HieroGround ministry. He wants it to spread across York County accompanied by the Meet the Need software.
Created by Atlanta businessman Jim Morgan in 2000, the software helps churches and faith-based organizations track who is doing what in a given community, as well as tracking who is receiving what services.
A 501c3 nonprofit, Meet the Need is available for a donation. Jerry Murray plans to integrate the software into HieroGround and said he hopes to convince more York County churches and faith-based groups to use it as well.
The more faith groups work together with volunteer efforts, the more efficient and effective they will be, Murray said.