VERNON TOWNSHIP — Some township trustees get one, maybe two phone calls for financial assistance a year.
Jim Nolte is not one of them.
The Vernon Township trustee, in just his second year on the job, has been inundated by requests for assistance. From rent and utilities to medical bills and gas cards, Nolte has no trouble burning through the funds allocated to his office for emergency financial aid.
It’s a far cry from some of Hancock County’s other townships.
“I get one maybe or two (requests for financial assistance a year,” said Paul Cooper, Blue River Township trustee. “Some years, none.”
Nolte averages 10 a week.
And there’s only so much he can do, only so much money to give out. But instead of keeping a low profile or shying away from the need, Nolte has done the exact opposite.
He’s doubled the hours the office is open – from two hours each week to four – and has an office number that can ring through to his cell phone so he’s available around the clock. He has developed partnerships with other agencies that, if anything, send more people his way.
“I want people to understand, township trustees, they are available to help,” Nolte explained.
While one aspect of a township trustee’s job is to distribute poor relief to residents in need of emergency financial assistance, Nolte routinely goes above the beyond the call of duty – like last week, when he lent his own bicycle to a Vernon Township resident who needed a way to get to his new job at McDonald’s.
Nolte’s mission will grow even larger, though, starting next year. In January, Nolte will officially open a food pantry out of the Vernon Township trustee’s office.
Plans for such an effort have been in the works for about a year now. There were some hurdles, like how to fund the operation, but Nolte said he’s finally lined up support from several groups that will help keep food on the shelves. While he’s allowed to give people money to go buy groceries, Nolte isn’t technically supposed to be using the tax dollars allocated to his office to buy the food himself.
It’s not a problem, he said, until he runs into a family that needs help with rent, and utilities, too. There just isn’t always enough in the coffers to cover all of a family’s expenses.
“I can keep someone from being evicted or having the lights shut off, only to find out these people are hungry,” Nolte said. “It was breaking my heart.”
Fortville has a well-documented need for hunger assistance, said Tom Ferguson, Hancock County Food Pantry director.
“They have a large number of people that are food-insecure,” Ferguson said, using the term for people who have trouble keeping food on their tables.
The Hancock County Food Pantry serves Vernon Township residents, but they can only visit once a month, and transportation can be a struggle. While Nolte has worked to get his pantry off the ground, he and Ferguson joined forces to use Hancock County Food Pantry’s relationship with Indianapolis-based Gleaner’s Food Bank to play host to three mobile food pantry events over the last year.
Hundreds of families show up for the events, directly impacting about 1,000 local people.
“At 10:50 in the morning we already had a line of cars,” said Nolte of the last mobile pantry, which was held Nov. 15. “It didn’t open until 3 p.m. People are hungry.”
Several small pantries already operate in the area, but not enough yet to meet the need, said Donna Foster.
For years, Foster has been fighting hunger in Vernon Township with her independent pantry, Angel Connection.
“The need is more widespread than anybody has any idea,” Foster said.
Over the past year, Foster has worked closely with Nolte, each supporting the other’s work. A pantry in the trustee’s office, she said, will help fill a gap that she can’t meet alone.
“We see the need firsthand,” she said.
For several months, Nolte has been quietly handing out food as it has come in to needy families passing through his office. Being able to finally open his doors for real, though, will be a goal accomplished, he said.
“It makes me feel good to know that even though I’ve reached my financial limit as a trustee, I can still help,” he said. “I can still know they’re not going out of there hungry anyway.”