BUCKHANNON – She’s the first layperson to lead the Upshur Parish House and Crosslines – the ecumenical ministry housed within it – since the United Methodist organization was founded nearly 30 years ago.
But Kristi Wilkerson’s experiences working as the director of Christian education at First United Methodist Church; for the Charleston-based nonprofit West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities; as the alumni director and a communications professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College; and more have all prepped her for the demands of the position, she said.
Wilkerson, who stepped into the role July 1 following the departure of former Parish House director Alicia Rapking, said Wednesday it’s those experiences in which she’s honed relationship-building skills that will help her transition into the new role.
In fact, one of the community posts she currently holds – an Upshur County Board of Education member – is what most inspired her to pursue serving as the director.
Wilkerson, who has degrees in public relations and Christian education, said she’d known it was possible that Rapking, an ordained United Methodist minister, would be called back to pulpit ministry due to a shortage pastors in the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Indeed, Rapking left the Parish House in late June to become the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Parkersburg, West Virginia.)
“I also think being on the school board made me more aware of the great need Upshur County has, particularly with children and families, and I think that piqued my interest in the position even more, and I really felt a calling and a nudge,” said Wilkerson, who’s previously served on the Parish Council, the Parish House’s and Crosslines’ board of directors.
That’s when Wilkerson met with Marvin Carr, who founded with Parish House with his wife, Sarah, in the late 1980s in response to the floods of 1985, and told him she was interested in exploring the position.
“Everything I have done as an adult, I’ve felt called to do,” she said. “My faith is very important to me, and I rely on that a lot.”
Being on the Board of Education, Wilkerson hasn’t been able to turn a blind eye to the mounting number of children in the Upshur County School System whose basic needs for food, reliable shelter and clothing aren’t being met at home.
“We know that with the addiction crisis, grandparents raising children is highly prevalent in this area, and I have come across children in the school system who literally did not know if they would have a meal that night,” Wilkerson said. “When there’s a lack of parental support and fulfillment of basic needs, it makes it that much more difficult for them to learn.”
Hence, the need for more “wraparound” or support services – such as mental health counseling – in Upshur County and almost every other West Virginia county school system.
“We are a trauma-informed school system, so part of that is recognizing that if children are not getting these things at home, before we can expect them to sit in their seat and read and do math, we need to make sure they are warm, safe and dry – and that we are meeting those basic needs,” Wilkerson said. “There’s so much potential. I’m highly optimistic with just a little bit of support and extra services, our children can blossom and do everything that they were meant to do and that they want to do.”
Heading up the Parish House gives Wilkerson the opportunity to directly meet those basic needs. The organization aids about 100 families a week, whom they assist in numerous ways by supplying food and providing financial assistance with rent and utilities, to name a few services.
“We can’t do everything every month for everyone, but there’s a structure in place that lets us help folks, and there’s an expectation that they are contributing by seeking help in other ways and trying to help themselves,” she said.
Right now, the Parish House is collecting backpacks and other school supplies, which it will dole out during the last week of July. Those supplies aren’t for use at school – where materials are typically provided – but for use at home, so students have the resources to complete their homework in hand.
“We distribute about 300-400 backpacks a year,” she said. “As director, I see really great opportunities to partner with the community and to partner with the school system and talk to them about what they see as needs in the community, and hopefully, we can respond to that.”
So, what’s Wilkerson’s leadership style going to be as she moves forward?
Right now, she says she’s listening and learning and getting down to the “nitty-gritty” of Parish House and Crosslines operations.
“After that, I really like to collaborate,” she said. “Folks can come together at the table to talk about, ‘is there an issue or a problem or an opportunity, how can we address that together?’
Wilkerson doesn’t relish talking about herself, but she does think she brings a unique perspective to that theoretical table as the first layperson Parish House director.
“I certainly have a religious and spiritual background but having worked for a nonprofit in Charleston (West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities) and as Wesleyan’s alumni director, I have a different background than [ordained United Methodist Church ministers] do,” she said. “I see a lot of opportunities for fundraising and stewardship as well as meeting with our supporters and donors and extending my appreciation to them.”
Wilkerson said she plans on searching for grant opportunities, too. She sees her background in nonprofit work, financial know-how, and experience with public relations and event planning as pluses.
“I want to do a lot of publicity for events and kind of kick that up a notch,” she said. “I have figured out that what I do well is relationship-building and maintaining.
“When you show people you care about them – you may not even know them personally – but when you show them that you want them to have the best life they possibly can, they reciprocate that,” Wilkerson remarked. “It’s part of living out my faith – that you love your neighbor, and if someone needs a meal, if you can, you give them a meal or whatever they need. It’s about living a life as close to the life of Jesus Christ as you can.”
“I really try to remember that we’ve all had a bad day or a bad time, so when someone sits down beside you, you try to think about how they could be going through something, too,” she added.
Wilkerson believes that one individual offering even a glimmer of hope to someone who’s struggling with addiction, poverty or some other issue can go – even glow – a long way, providing that little bit of light to illuminate their path out of darkness.
“If someone is addicted or really struggling in life, sometimes they just need a helping hand to give them a little bit more hope,” she said. “My prayer is that the Parish House continues to offer hope to people in their time of need.
“I want to let folks know that any way we can figure out to help our neighbors, that’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “I also want to thank community members and churches who support us in many, many ways.”
The Upshur Cooperative Parish represents approximately 20 United Methodist churches in Upshur County. Curious about its mission and history? Check out www.parishhouse.org.