Helping is a Must
Author Mike Mullet
Although the letters in the MUST name stand for Ministries United in Service and Training, the must in MUST Ministries is much more than a clever acronym.
It is an obligation, a commitment to servant leadership. In the truest sense it is a moral imperative. As MUST Ministries celebrates fifty years of service to the communities of north metro Atlanta, the charity exemplifies the compassionate helping hand that must always be extended to those in need.
When Reverend Wayne Williams started MUST Ministries in 1971, the Marietta-based ministry offered three services—a grocery-bus ministry for the elderly, a youth-tutoring program, and outreach to disaffected young people in need of guidance and community.
The ministry lacked a formal mission statement then, but helping those in need was always the overarching goal, the simple vision that has driven MUST Ministries and everything it does for the past five decades. Since its meager beginnings, it has expanded the number of its locations, added to the services it offers, and increased the volume of people it helps. The MUST Ministries location in Cherokee County offers all its services.
“People sometimes see our building in Canton and think that’s all there is to MUST Ministries,” says Kendall Jones, MUST’s community liaison for Cherokee County. “But that’s actually our Cherokee service center. We have two more service centers in Cobb County—one in Marietta and one in Smyrna—plus a thrift store, a healthcare center, an emergency shelter, and more. Really, MUST Ministries is a network of programs with a regional footprint.”
MUST opened its first office in Cherokee County in 1988 in the basement of Canton First United Methodist Church. As demand for services escalated, so did the need for more space. Over the years the ever-growing ministry moved into two different Canton locations until building its own facility in 2013 on Brown Industrial Parkway, across the street from the library, where it is located today.
“We accept people from anywhere at our Cherokee service center,” adds Kendall. “Whether it’s Pickens County or Bartow or Gilmer, if someone comes to us and needs help, we are going to help.”
That commitment to helping led to an array of services that likely would have been hard to imagine in 1971. Kendall lists some of them, demonstrating the breadth of MUST Ministries programs and how the charity has consistently evolved to meet needs and gaps in its communities. Kids are a priority for MUST, and more than half the people who receive services are under eighteen.
“One of our signature programs is our summer lunch program across seven counties,” Kendall explains. “We know that kids who are on free and reduced-cost lunch during the school year may not get lunch during the summer, so about twenty-five years ago a MUST volunteer in Marietta wanted to do something about that. She got some local churches make lunches and give them to kids who needed it, and the program has grown larger every year since.”
This past summer MUST served more than 537,000 meals a week to about 5,200 kids in seven counties, including Cherokee, for all nine weeks of summer vacation.
“In 2020,” Kendall says, “we had to change our model a little bit—how we prepare food and where we get it. But we adapted, because the bottom line is we don’t want kids to go hungry in the summer.”
Neighborhood pantries complement the lunch program. With sites in seven Cherokee schools, the pantries provide core food items as well as non-food items such as laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, and hygiene items—household essentials not covered by food stamps.
“The school counselors identify kids and families in need. They can come to a pantry once a month and get what they need,” Kendall says. “There is no cost to families for anything, and it is great partnership with Cherokee County schools.”
Food remains an essential part of MUST’s ministry. In 2020 the charity distributed more than 2.4 million pounds across the region, its highest total ever and a greater than 700 percent increase over 2019.
In Cherokee County, MUST distributed more than 285,000 pounds of food between July 2020 and June 2021, according to MUST Marketing Coordinator Justin Deece. The organization served more than 3,400 Cherokee residents in the same period with food and many other types of assistance.
MUST provides a range of services for those in need: emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing, employment assistance, clothing, and more, all of which saw substantial increases in demand during the pandemic.
One of the most critical services MUST offers—again through vital community partnerships—is healthcare. “In Cherokee County we have a partnership with Bethesda Community Clinic,” Kendall explains. “It has a mobile unit it brings to our Cherokee location the first Friday of every month.” The mobile unit provides free primary care on a walk-in basis and can make referrals as needed to other low-cost programs and providers. “When Bethesda is here, our Cherokee center becomes a one-stop shop,” Kendall says. “People can come and get food, clothing, help finding a job, and healthcare.”
Although partnerships and corporate grants are critical to many of the services MUST provides, individual donations and fundraising ensures the ministry is ready at a moment’s notice, day or night, to help any local family facing a housing or food emergency. MUST’s annual Gobble Jog, held appropriately enough on Thanksgiving Day, is its largest yearly fundraiser.
“The Gobble Jog takes place Thanksgiving morning on Marietta Square, and we are really looking forward to having it in person again this year,” says Kendall. “We have a timed and untimed five k, a timed ten k, a one k, and a Tot Trot for the little ones. It is truly a community event and fun family atmosphere.”
After starting nearly twenty years ago, the Gobble Job has become one of the biggest 10k events in the U.S., with more than ten thousand virtual and in-person participants expected this year. Like many such events, participants can form teams and get friends, neighbors, and others to sponsor them.
Kendall shares, “If you want to be what we call a phantom runner, you can sleep in and still get a T-shirt, or you can come and run the race in person, and still be home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Either way, you are helping your neighbors, local families in need. You are helping your community.”
MUST ultimately thrives at the center of a circle of mutual aid, Kendall says. MUST helps the community, and the community helps MUST. The community makes MUST Ministries possible, as it always has.
“When people say to me, ‘Thank you for what MUST does,’ I have to say that we couldn’t do it without our community,” Kendall asserts. “We are MUST Ministries, but we are the community. We don’t exist without it, so we are blessed and we are grateful, because we couldn’t do what we do without the support of our community.”
A resident of Cherokee County since 2004, Mike Mullet has been writing professionally for nearly thirty years. Between his work in public relations and freelance jobs, he has written about diverse topics and industries, including healthcare, energy, banking, hospitality, conservation, behavioral health, mining, technology, and manufacturing.