A lack of storage space didn’t stop the Rev. Ida Williams from distributing the gifts her charity had collected last year.
When she discovered the space she had reserved in a local church was no longer available, Williams took her charity, Refuge Ministries, to the street. She didn’t need a roof over her head to hand out toys, food and clothes — after all, many of the people she was helping barely had a roof of their own.
Williams set up tables along 32nd and Dickinson and stayed there until she had given out everything she had.
"That was great because the people were so amazed," she remembers.
Refuge Ministries is one of the smallest charities around, but if you ask the families it has helped, they would probably insist the people who run it have the biggest hearts.
Williams was inspired to create the charity five years ago after she was awakened one night by a vision she believes came from God.
"I felt the Lord was saying, ‘Give every child in this neighborhood a toy,’" she says.
Williams, 48, with no children of her own, knew she would never have enough money to purchase that many toys. So in August 1998, she bought an ad in the Review asking for people to donate new and used toys. The response was overwhelming.
At the time, Williams lived in an apartment near Seventh Street and Moyamensing Avenue. She remembers the basement in her building was so packed with gifts, it looked as if the room stretched the length of the block.
"They filled up my basement with toys," says Williams, a minister at Mount Enon Baptist Church, Fifth Street and Snyder Avenue. "I was overwhelmed."
That Christmas, with help from the Houston Community Center at Eighth and Snyder, she distributed toys to neighborhood children whose families could not afford to buy gifts on their own.
This year’s giveaway of toys, food and clothes for the needy will be held tomorrow at 6 p.m. at the Ford Police Athletic League Center, Sixth and Snyder. There is no need to call ahead; Williams will try to help all the families who show up.
Refuge Ministries has expanded during the last half-decade, but Williams remains the driving force. Today, two other ministers assist her — the Revs. Marie Poindexter and Sonia Reed. Williams no longer stores the toys in her basement and she has an ever-growing list of 20 individuals and organizations that regularly donate items.
While many locally based businesses and agencies have extended a helping hand to Refuge Ministries, Williams is disappointed by those that have not.
A few years ago, the minister began petitioning some of the national chain stores in the area for contributions, with little or no luck.
"That kind of weighs heavy on my spirits," she says, especially when she sees a story on the evening news featuring one of those stores donating truckloads of goods to charities that may or may not benefit the store’s neighbors.
"What about the child that lives three blocks away?" Williams asks. The minister feels strongly that people have to begin making their own neighborhoods a priority. People should rebuild their own areas if needed, then go help somewhere else, she says.
"People are praising God within the four walls of the church," she says, "but everything is dying outside. We need to come out of the safety of the church and go reach the people."
The minister laments the isolation that is a way of life these days.
"When I grew up," she says, "the lady next door told my mother when I skipped school. Now, everybody is going their own way."
Refuge Ministries is not just about toys, Williams maintains — it is about people having compassion for one another.
The charity has gone through some growing pains over the years. After its first year, the influx of donations became too large, and Williams had the items moved from her apartment to her mother’s home at Seventh and McKean streets. Without the availability of her old basement, Williams says she asked friends and neighbors to keep some of the donated items in their homes.
This year the minister rented storage space to keep everything in one place until it is distributed tomorrow. But Williams does not have a car, and she has to rely on help from friends and relatives to pick up donations.
Yet it’s all worth it, she says, especially when she encounters people like the little boy who came to her second annual gift-giving event.
Williams recalls she was handing out donations alone that year, and it was near the end of a particularly chaotic day when the boy approached her.
"His face was all dirty," Williams says. "He said to me, ‘Do you have anything for my sister because my sister don’t have nothing?’ That’s what makes me feel good inside."