CHESTER — Chester Eastside Ministries has served the city for nearly 30 years, providing programs ranging from tutoring to providing free meals and clothing.
“These programs are vital,” said the Rev. Bernice Warren, a Chester native who has served as the nonprofit’s pastor and director since 1995. “I don’t declare them vital. The community declares them vital.”
Financial challenges have forced Chester Eastside Ministries to reduce its operating hours, trim payroll and consider relocating within Chester, but Warren insists the ministry will overcome its hurdles.
“Chester Eastside is not going anywhere,’ Warren said. “It’s a spirit, not a building. Whatever the future holds, Chester Eastside Ministries is going to be a part of it.”
Chester Eastside Ministries formed in 1985 as a division of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. For years, the organization depended mostly on the Presbytery for funding. However, Presbytery funding has decreased in each of the last seven years, Warren said, forcing Chester Eastside Ministries to seek revenue elsewhere.
Chester Eastside Ministries has solicited donations from local churches and organizations while also seeking grants. Widener University and Swarthmore College also have been instrumental in raising support and providing student mentors and tutors, Warren said.
“We have tremendous partners,” Warren said. “Even with that, we are struggling like any other agency in Chester.”
Board member Will Richan said Chester Eastside Ministries now raises about 70 percent of its $369,000 budget. He said the board is completing a strategic plan to determine how the organization can best serve Chester going forward.
The Presbytery sent Chester Eastside Ministries $100,000 this year and also provides its building and various financial services, said Lucy Rupe, the Presbytery’s interim executive presbyter.
Rupe said the Presbytery has encountered its own financial concerns in recent years, partly because of the recession. The funding reductions to Chester Eastside Ministries are part of various cutbacks within the Presbytery, she said.
“I think that they historically have provided a needed service in Chester, as have other ministries and as has the Presbytery,” Rupe said. “It’s a phenomenon that many folks are feeling.”
To combat its financial struggles, Chester Eastside Ministries cut back to three days of service per week from March to June and reduced the hours of its four paid staffers.
Warren said people accustomed to stopping by Chester Eastside Ministries felt “a little lost” when the staffers were not there.
“This is a busy place,” Warren said. “It always has been.”
Chester Eastside Ministries reopened to five days of service during the summer, when its summer camps were in session. Whether it will remain open five days per week in the fall has not been determined.
Chester Eastside Ministries was particularly busy earlier this month, when 25 students participated in its annual Peace Leadership and Arts summer camp. The camp encourages youth to express themselves through the arts. This year, the youth put together an original play highlighting the similarities of the Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin killings.
Shay Littleton said attending the camp transformed her into a 17-year-old girl unafraid to perform before a crowd.
“I didn’t really have too much confidence in myself,” said Littleton, who first attended the camp when she was 12. “I was shy. I couldn’t speak in front of people. As the years went by and I kept going to the camp, this camp broke me out of my shell. It took me out of my comfort zone.”
Chester Eastside Ministries also provides a food and clothing ministry, an after-school program, various summer camps and a Parents First program designed to help parents navigate the education system.
Yet, Warren said, Chester Eastside Ministries is unique in that its members also are activists advocating against injustice. They frequently appear at Chester Upland School District and city council meetings.
“Chester Eastside Ministries is really a ministry about justice,” Warren said. “Everything we do … is really all about bringing justice and wholeness to the people that we serve and the people who serve us.”