PORTLAND, Ore. -- The working poor -- you could be closer to joining this group than you think.
Because of America's struggling economy, more and more middle and blue collar people are joining their numbers.
In Portland, one place is trying to catch these people and propel them back up the financial ranks.
Fish and Loaves
In 1992, Christians Suzanne and Barry Birch were just trying to figure out how to best serve God when a local charity had some left over bread it wanted to end up in needy hands. They contacted the Birches.
It was then, Barry recalled, that "we ended up with a bag of squished bread on our front porch." A bag they gave to three families in need.
More and more people came to the Birches for help and, like the fishes and loaves, donated food began to pour through this couple's hands. They found many businesses and places that would rather give it away than see it go to waste.
"We had to move bread when we had company," Barry said. "It just sort of took over the whole house."
Birch Community Services
They finally had to move their giving operation into a small warehouse. Then a bigger one. And then an even bigger one.
And so many people began to work alongside them in this ministry, they incorporated, becoming the non-profit Birch Community Services, or BCS, a refuge and home for what they call "the working poor."
What started out with just one bag of banged-up bread at the Birches' tiny house has now become a huge warehouse of more than 22,000 square feet where they and their many allies gave away more than 6 million pounds of products last year.
The products come from nearly 100 manufacturers, retailers and growers, mostly in the Portland area.
At the heart of this enterprise are some 600 member families, most of them still working, but many falling into poverty or near-poverty.
But BCS isn't just a charity donating to these families. The Birches have created a real community by requiring those who receive to also give.
Those in this sort of co-op volunteer several hours at least a couple of times a month. They end up helping as much as they are helped.
"God is our provider," Suzanne said. "He provides on a daily basis, and our job is to serve one another."
"We are members of an organization that we also have to give back to," Kadie Hambleton, a longtime BCS member, told CBN News.
"We have a monthly payment that we make, it's a minimal $50-a-month payment. And we also have to do volunteer time," she explained.
For that, the 600 member families get to choose food and goods from the hundreds of shelves, racks, and displays when the warehouse is open for community 'shopping.'
They call it 'shopping,' but there are no cash registers where you pay after you've filled up your cart. Many member families save $500 or $600 a month because of BCS.
More than Charity
For Hambleton's family, it was a lifesaver.
"Right after we became members, I ended up with cancer," she said. "And we wouldn't have survived without Birch."
That's when Hambleton found just how caring this community of volunteers could be.
"Financially, when you have that kind of diagnosis, it puts you under. And Birch helped us in so many ways," she said.
"It wasn't just the food and supplies," she explained. "It was the support, the love, the nurturing, and people helping at our home."
The food and products are but a small part of what BCS offers. Because the Birches want their families to "graduate" as soon as possible from the ranks of the working poor, they offer many avenues to help these families get better jobs and handle their money better.
For instance, many no-cost or low-cost classes teach community members how to make more money or stretch their cash further.
"So we offer and require actually that our families take a finance class," Suzanne said.
"There's a couponing class. There's a canning class," Hambleton chimed in.
One entire room in the warehouse is full of computers where community members learn extensive computing skills.
"And we have a 'raising chickens' class along with our gardening classes," Suzanne said.
Many of the vegetables BCS gives away come from its latest push: community gardening.
In large communal plots, BCS is teaching its mostly city dwellers a delicious form of self-reliance.
"How we can turn our homes into providing food for our families even in the urban setting," Melissa Youd, one of the community gardens organizers, said.
For instance, Youd suggests families create and use raised beds: boxed-in plots of plants, often set up higher than ground level.
"It's easier to garden," she said. "There are less weeds; you can keep your animals out. The moles stay out."
Another option is "lasagna gardening," which involves forming surprisingly fruitful mounds out of layers of cardboard, compost, and dirt.
"Just lay down a bunch of cardboard, pile a bunch of dirt on top, and make some paths and plant your plants," Youd explained.
You can turn your whole yard into fun, productive land this way.
"Instead of walking through the grass, you're walking through the garden, picking carrots while you're going," Melissa's husband Brian Youd said.
Hand-Up, Not a Hand-Out
Back at the warehouse, it's as busy as a beehive with volunteers. Much of that activity is preparing goods for other agencies.
Because God's blessed BCS with so much, they give every week to more than 50 local non-profits.
"We're helping to provide for over 10,000 people a week just through those agencies," Barry told CBN News.
Meanwhile, among the BCS member families, the Birches are working on the next step.
"We have an exit strategy -- because our goal is to get them to graduate," Barry stressed.
"Most programs are just a hand-out and they never see the people again," he said. "But we just embrace them till they're back on their feet."
But until they do "graduate" and move on, BCS requires that every recipient also keeps volunteering, keeps serving.
"And so it becomes a community of people all serving each other," Barry explained.
And that's part of the success of the Birch Community Services.