Serving West County Residents and Families in Need
As Circle of Concern approaches its 50th anniversary next year, the agency – mostly staffed by volunteers – continues a long tradition of serving the needy living in the Parkway, Rockwood and Valley Park school districts with food pantry, financial and other services.
Based at 112 St Louis Ave in Valley Park, the agency has, in addition to four full-time staff members, about 300 volunteers, about 200 of whom are very active, said Cyndi Miller, Circle’s executive director.
“Volunteers meet with clients, answer the phones, stock the pantry and warehouse, troubleshoot technology, mentor job-hunting clients, work regular shifts and participate in occasional projects – we couldn’t do what we do without them,” Miller said.
Circle is funded primarily by individual donations though they receive some corporate and family foundation grants, hold some special event fundraisers, and have support from area churches.
“We are first and foremost a food pantry, sharing fresh and non-perishable food,” Miller said.
“We want to help people with their most urgent needs but also work hard to help them get beyond their current circumstances.”
While many don’t realize it, there is poverty in West County, Miller said.
“We had a mom knock on our door the other day, in tears after her electricity had been off for three days – she said she was pregnant and just couldn’t do it anymore,” Miller said.
“It’s satisfying to be able to help out someone like her.”
Circle Of Concern was officially formed in 1967, when west St. Louis County was largely rural.
“People from a number of local congregations began meeting to coordinate help for families in need,” Miller said.
“Chairs were arranged in a circle during the meetings, signifying that all members held equal weight in the discussions – thus the name.”
Originally a completely volunteer-run organization, Circle first operated out of various area churches, moved in 1989 to a building in Valley Park and in 2009, completed construction of a new facility at the site, built specifically for all operations and serving as the hub of daily operations and relief efforts.
Today, clients include: working adults, children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans, un-employed and underemployed people, homeless individuals and families and others who struggle with poverty and hunger.
“The largest group we serve, making up about 60 percent of clients, is moms and their school-aged children,” Miller said, adding clients can have a household income (including wages, social security, government assistance and other resources) up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
“Each month, Circle feeds about 2,000 people. We share a 7 to 10 day supply of grocery items, including milk, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, bakery items, frozen meats and canned goods. Because items like soap and toilet paper cannot be purchased with food stamps, personal care items and paper products also are included with the groceries.”
Circle of Concern also provides emergency financial assistance on a limited basis, offering help to keep utilities on, avoid eviction and deal with other short-term needs. To receive assistance, clients are expected to pay a portion of the financial need.
Area high school seniors from low-income families who live in the Circle service area are eligible to apply in the spring for tuition funds for the coming school year. The competitive process for awards includes an in-depth application, references from school personnel and an interview. Scholarships can be used for tuition at professional trade schools, community colleges or four-year institutions. The previous year’s scholarship recipients are eligible to apply for second-year awards.
Circle also offers, throughout the year, scholarships to adult clients pursuing a high school equivalency degree (GED) or in need of specialized job training or certification to find employment. Scholarships can be used for GED-prep classes or at trade schools, technical schools or community colleges.
“We have awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to adults and kids over our almost 50 years,” Miller said.
An annual Back to School event each August helps equip the children of client families, in kindergarten through college, with new supplies, including a new backpack.
“We expect about 700 children to get the supplies (which were given out Aug. 6),” Miller said.
Through a Summer Opportunities program, children of clients can access local camps, sports teams or other summer programs that their families might otherwise be unable to afford.
Clients’ children under age 12, through a Birthday Club, receive gifts, along with a bag containing cake mix, icing and party favors/supplies.
“For families with school-age children who receive free or reduced-cost breakfast and/or lunch during the school year, we provide Kid Bags during the summer,” Miller said.
“These packs include additional child-friendly food – macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, canned pasta, cereal, cheese sticks and fresh fruit – to help bridge the grocery gap and ensure these children have enough to eat when school is not in session.”
Circle also has a job mentorship program.
“We pair working and retired professionals with clients, to help them figure out what direction they want to take, such as offering practical training and coaching in interviewing, developing a resume and job search techniques like networking,” Miller said.
The Circle offers families Thanksgiving baskets each November with turkeys, pies, veggies and boxes full of all the makings of a holiday feast.
For the winter of 2015, 265 households, including more than 800 people, were “adopted” for the holidays, connecting families with businesses, churches, civic groups, families and others who provide presents and practical household items, clothes and shoes.
An annual Toy Day is held the second week of December providing toys to hundreds of children of clients.
“Throughout the year, we rely on others to bring food staples, holiday basics and even personal care items that are given to our clients,” Miller said.
“Most of the dry goods we give out are donated by community members and a good portion of dollar donations are used to buy fresh food.”
Fresh produce from home and community gardens is welcome, as are items like toilet paper, shampoo, shower gel and shaving supplies included with all client groceries. Donations of all sizes of diapers and infant care items, as well as feminine care and adult hygiene products and detergent are helpful.
New box fans and new window air conditioning units are accepted, as are school supplies, especially sturdy backpacks and solar scientific calculators for high school students; new, unwrapped toys and personal electronics for children to age 18; new winter hats and gloves and
gift cards (such as from area grocery stores, discount retail stores, and entertainment venues).
Monetary donations by check can be mailed to Circle Of Concern, P.O. Box 444, Valley Park, MO 63088. The website CircleOfConcern.org can accept donations by credit card.
“Volunteers sharing their time and talents are integral to Circle’s work, and we can always use more,” Miller said.
“People and groups sponsoring food drives are also helpful, though we encourage people to call the office before they do a drive to get some guidelines.”
Circle has a benefit 5K run coming up Sept. 17 at Arnold’s Grove Trail Head Park, at Highway 141 and Marshall Road in Valley Park. Cost to register is $25 per person, which includes a t-shirt and snacks. Proceeds will support client programs. There will be a warmup provided by CrossFit Valley Park, as well as a performance by School of Rock youth musicians and balloon animals for kids by Sammy J’s Balloons.
Circle’s hours of operation are 9am to 3pm Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 9am. to 7pm Wednesdays, and 9am to 1pm. Saturdays. For more information, call 636.861.2623 or visit CircleOfConcern.org.