The Walk-In Ministry of Oak Park and River Forest turns five years old this year.

But the name shouldn’t mislead you, as it does for some. The volunteer-driven, social service agency that helps people facing poverty-related issues is not an actual ministry. It shouldn’t be considered faith-based either, even though it was started by a group of area ministers in November 2005 and is currently located at First United Church of Oak Park.

“A lot of people believe that we are faith-based. It’s clear once you come in that we’re not a religious-affiliated entity,” said Cristy Harris, the organization’s executive director.

Harris, a part-time director, is the only paid person on staff. The rest are volunteers who help clients needing money for transportation to a doctor’s appointment, or help with their rent, among other services. The mid-term goal, though, is to connect clients with services aimed at solving their challenges.

The ministry has a pool of 50 volunteers, including retirees, doctors and stay-at-home moms.

Harris was the latter when she started with the ministry two years ago. She previously worked as a financial portfolio advisor. She was active in her church and in the Oak Park schools her children attended. In October 2009, the ministry’s board of directors appointed Harris executive director, the first the organization has ever had.

“I knew the business and volunteer side, so it was a perfect fit for me,” said the Oak Park resident.

The ministry serves clients from 28 Chicago- and suburban-area Zip codes but sees a great number of people from Chicago’s West Side, including neighboring Austin. Its funding comes from donations. People seeking help are typically having financial difficulties. But Harris has noted seeing more people from Oak Park recently suffering from the economic downturn.

“Oak Park is not known as a community struggling with poverty. But there are people who are now out of work and had never before had to consider buying food stamps or anything like that. That can be very humiliating for someone,” Harris said.

The ministry helps connect clients with services and offers guidance. Some volunteers work directly with clients while others work in the evening researching online for services clients might need. The ministry shares space in the lower-level of First United, 848 Lake, with the Oak Park Food Pantry and is open six days a week from 10 to 11 a.m.

Site Director Susan Zaruba has been with the ministry from day one. The 20-year Oak Park resident started as a volunteer after retiring from teaching in a Des Plaines school district. She’s been a volunteer site director for four years, noting “I don’t need to be paid.” Zaruba sees five or six clients on average and has three volunteers working with her. She and Harris stressed that there is accountability when it comes to clients, who have to show proof that they’re struggling with rent or having trouble getting to the doctor. And clients are expected to repay the money loaned to them by the ministry, which can be very empowering to them, Zaruba stressed.

“I love that clients are held accountable. We get to sit down and talk to people, and get to know them. That’s different than just handing a person $5 on the street if they need it,” she said. “You never know what it was used for or if it benefited the person.”

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