Nonprofit Christian Layman Corps provides everyday items to those who lack them



When Charles Cunningham Jr. learned that some children in Westmoreland County were sleeping on couches, on the floor or with their parents because they didn't have beds of their own, he thought "how horrible" -- and he decided to do something about it.

Three-and-a-half years after he initiated a program called A Bed for Every Child, 706 children have been provided with beds, linens and dressers.

The effort isn't unusual for Mr. Cunningham, 83, of Unity. In 2002, he walked out of a comfortable retirement to start an emergency food pantry that has grown into a multifaceted service organization called the Christian Layman Corps. The Greensburg-based nonprofit mainly serves Westmoreland County but also reaches into Appalachian areas in neighboring

counties and in West Virginia and Kentucky. The corps' work occasionally extends beyond those boundaries -- the recycled medical supplies it collects are sent overseas via the Brother's Brother Foundation of Pittsburgh.

The most public face of the organization is the Christian Layman Thrift Store at 258 E. Pittsburgh St., Greensburg, which is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Shoppers browse aisles of clothing, neatly arranged in men's, women's and children's sections. Kitchen and other household items, jewelry, toys and a book nook fill a second room, and a lower level displays furniture.

Near the loading dock in back, volunteers sort through donations, making sure each item is in good condition before placing it in its proper place.

The profits from the store's sales are fed back into the organization to cover operating costs, such as building maintenance and gasoline for its trucks. About 60 volunteers supplement 10 paid staff members, filling roles as varied as cashier, newsletter staff, grant writer and television repairman.

Behind the public area, goods destined for charitable distribution are stored, including crutches, canned goods and perishable food in a walk-in unit. The corps store is also a food pantry location for the Westmoreland County Food Bank and serves approximately 300 people a month, Mr. Cunningham said.

Luke Hingson, president of Brother's Brother Foundation, said volunteers from the corps call every month or two when they've collected enough medical equipment for a pickup. Brother's Brother ships the wheelchairs, canes, manual hospital beds and other items to the 50 to 70 global charities that work with the foundation.

"We're grateful," Mr. Hingson said, adding that corps volunteers, many of whom are retirees, "put their backs into it" by helping to load trucks.

Appalachia-bound

The corps' successes are reflected in statistics as well as individual stories. Between January 2003 and March of this year, for example, it sent 1,129 van loads of bread and other food, donated by a local businessman, to Appalachia's Helping Hands in Uniontown for distribution to needy families in Fayette County. Corps volunteers drove 95 prom gowns, provided by the Greensburg nonprofit Angela's Angels, to a church in Buckhannon, W.Va., last year, which gave them to high school girls and provided free alterations. That followed a delivery of 122 "like-new" band uniforms from the Greater Latrobe School District Wildcats to a struggling West Virginia middle school. Both districts have orange as a school color.

Beds, linens and dressers

In the store's upper level is a display of the bed, linens and dresser that the corps provides through A Bed for Every Child. Mr. Cunningham -- "Charlie" to corps staff and volunteers -- shows the items with pride, his decades of employment as a furniture salesman shining through as he emphasizes that the mattresses are fireproofed and notes the quality of the dressers.

"They used to be pine, but now they're all oak, cherry and maple. Try these drawers," he said, demonstrating how easily they glide open. "That's how you can tell a good piece of furniture, if you can use one hand to open a drawer."

The cost per set, including bed, linens and dresser, is $340, most of that covered by private donations and grants.

"It's a wonderful program," said Michelle Brant, case worker supervisor for the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, one of five local agencies that regularly turn to the layman corps to request beds for needy children. "[They provide] a beautiful set, very sturdy and very well-made furniture. They help us with cribs, as well."

Ms. Brant said sometimes the children who receive the beds are living at home, while others -- for a variety of reasons -- are waiting to be reunited with a parent or parents. In the latter case, the bed contributes to the family getting its life back together.

Another upstairs corner holds items to be used in the annual Fashion Show, a fundraiser that drew 170 patrons and raised $6,000 last year. This year's show and luncheon will be from noon to 4 p.m. Aug. 26 at Ferrante's Lakeview, Route 30 in Hempfield.

In the 5,000-square-foot basement, sofas, tables, lamps, chairs, cribs, beds and mattresses await pickup by individuals with a voucher from the many social service agencies and churches that work with the corps and evaluate recipients, saving the nonprofit from having to do that job.

Barbara Bruner, director of behavioral health services for Westmoreland Casemanagement and Supports Inc., has high praise for the corps.

"They want to help anybody in need," she said. "They provide the regular products that we take for granted in our homes every day but that some [people] are lacking."

Mr. Cunnngham is particularly pleased with a lift, recently installed with more than 90 hours of volunteer labor, that facilitates moving furniture from the main storage stock room to the basement. The next renovation goal is a conveyor belt along a concrete ramp at the facility. A $2,000 Robertshaw Charitable Foundation grant kicked off fundraising. Cost is estimated at $8,750.

The building houses a small chapel for those who appreciate a place for reflection, but Mr. Cunningham stressed, "We are not a church."

Twelve religious denominations are represented among the volunteers, he said.

"There are three rules. No theologizing. No preaching. And you must celebrate the Lord Jesus Christ together as brothers and sisters."

Mr. Cunningham said that services are provided to all: "We are all God's children. People fail to recognize that and that's why there's so much fighting in the world."

At the beginning, the nonprofit was "a one-room store, and I was the truck driver picking up furniture," Mr. Cunningham said. Donated goods were collected in a trailer parked behind the family furniture store.

Now it has a fleet of six trucks to pick up and deliver furniture and appliances, and dedicated volunteers, some of whom have been with the organization since the beginning. They come from a variety of life experiences, including retired teachers, former business executives, boys and girls from local youth organizations, housewives and nuns.

As for the future, Mr. Cunningham said, "We probably don't want to reach out much further -- but we'll increase what we do."

For tickets to the August fundraiser: 724-837-1273.

For more on the organization or to volunteer: 724-834-4464 or christianlaymencorps.com.

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Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. First Published May 10, 2012 4:00 AM


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