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Man on a mission

It’s obvious. Greg Meyer’s passion is reaching out and caring for others. It’s also his job as Director of Care and Outreach at Salem Lutheran Church in Deerwood, a position he has held for 12 years. Greg credits the many volunteers in the church and community who have made the outreach program a success. However, when speaking with Greg, his enthusiasm over flows. His dedication, leadership and caring nature for people is a great asset in addition to the help from over 200 volunteers. The church’s outreach goals not only help people in area communities, but as far away as Haiti and Honduras, an impoverished country in Central America that Greg has traveled to nearly 50 times since 2001. Salem Lutheran’s outreach program has been serving the community since 1993 by offering clothing, household items, furniture, financial assistance and human support. The hundreds of donations in response to the program was overwhelming and a separate building was needed to house the outreach program, Salem West, as the church basement was getting crowded.  A church member bought and donated the former laundromat building in Deerwood to serve as Salem West’s headquarters. Salem West serves the people in need in Crow Wing, Cass and other area counties through partnerships with the social service agencies in those counties. “We provide services through referrals from these partnering agencies,” Greg explained. “They have all been so good to work with and we’re happy to be able to offer this outreach that wouldn’t happen without our volunteers.” Greg commended Les Taylor, a 91-year-old volunteer who has been making single beds for Salem West for 20 years. In 2011, 400 beds were distributed to the needy. Due to the growth of the program, a 28 x 40 foot addition was added in 2004 in order to house the growing inventory. Before the donations are distributed, all the clothing is sorted and washed in washers and dryers located at Salem West, which also owns two trucks and two trailers to make deliveries. “We serve on average about 1,000 households a year,” said Greg, “which includes families and seniors and even those in nursing homes.” While Salem West helps people only through referrals, The Mustard Seed Thrift Shop in Deerwood, another outreach resource, is open to the public. Greg noted that some of the items donated to Salem West include antiques and other items that may not be suitable for those in need, so the Mustard Seed was opened in 2009. All sales from this venture go to help support the Salem West program. Greg commented that the thrift store resembles a retail store thanks to the volunteers who share their talents in decorating and displaying the items for sale. Since 1999, churches in the Northeast Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, including Salem Lutheran, have been making mission trips to Honduras.  The first trip was following Hurricane Mitch, a devastating storm that took close to 6,000 lives and destroyed 80% of the infrastructure in the country of 8.2 million people. The hurricane left 1.2 million people without a home. Since that time Salem West has been working in many areas of Honduras including building a Catholic Church, eight school buildings, assisted in medical missions, construction of buildings, and infrastructure. Greg said that volunteers make the cement blocks to build the structures. “One of the biggest projects is a tech school that offers classes in cooking, sewing, welding, farming, computers and there is even tilapia pond (fish farming),” Greg said. “Most people in Honduras have only a sixth grade education. Not very many people have hope, but the tech school will prepare them for a better future.” Ten years ago, the women of Salem Lutheran started making diapers out of t-shirts to be sent to Honduras after a group of volunteers met with the First Lady of Honduras who told the visitors that they could use 50,000 diapers. Thus, Diapers for Honduras was started with thousands of t-shirts given by church members and the community for the recycling process. T-shirts of any color can be used but they must be at least a size large and at least 50-100% cotton. A 16-inch by 15-inch piece of fabric is cut out from under the sleeves that unfolds to 30 inches. The fabric is folded into thirds and then sewn and serged. To date, 130,000 have been sent. “This has been a very successful program,” Greg exclaimed proudly.  “We have a great working relationship with them, and it is so satisfying to see the Honduran women lined up to receive the diapers. The need is still there.” Women from the church also create sundresses from pillow cases for little girls. During one of Greg’s frequent trips to Honduras, his wife, Diane, also went and they met a 11-year-old boy, Adonay, who was living on the street. They tried repeatedly to adopt him but their attempts were futile. Adonay is now 18 and is in prison for becoming involved in drugs. Greg returned from Honduras in May where he visited his friend. According to Greg, Honduras has the one of the largest crime rates in the world and prisons are overcrowded. “I’ve been mugged several times and even shot at,” Greg shared. “But luckily the bullet hit the frame of the car seat and no one was injured.” During the muggings, none of the volunteers were hurt. “One time we were leaving a church service and a group of men came in with guns. A gun was stuck in our faces and we had to give them everything we had on us,” Greg recalled. “It seems like they all have AK47s.” Greg has made many friends in Tegucilipa, the capitol of Honduras, where Salem West is based. The only paid employee is Byron Reyes, who stole food as a child and was beat on the back by his grandmother with a machete. The scars are still visible. “It took many years for Byron, now 28, to believe that we care for him,” Greg said. “He left the gangs, had his tattoos removed, and is now a true Christian. He just finished the sixth grade and is very proud of what he has done.”             Byron has never been to the U.S. but is trying to obtain a visa so that he can visit his mission friends. Greg has also made friends with Emerson, a 10-year-old boy who was born with a severe heart problem. It was costly to send Emerson to the U.S. for surgery and Greg could find no doctors in the U.S. who would do the surgery at no charge. But he was put in contact with a cardiologist in Guatemala who was willing to operate on the young boy free of charge. “Emerson’s parents allowed me and trusted me to take Emerson to Guatemala for the surgery and now he is doing fine,” Greg smiled. “I go to see him on his birthday and the first day of school each year.” One of the most traumatic and heart-wrenching trips was earlier this year when an overcrowded prison in Comayagua was destroyed by fire and 400 inmates were killed. Greg explained that there are no separate cells, but rather the prison is like a large cage with bunk beds that are four beds high. During the fire, inmates tried to escape through a metal roof and bodies were found stuck to the metal and other inmates’ hands were seared to the bars in the windows. “Family members came to dig through piles of body bags to identify their loved ones and the volunteers helped to move the bags. The guards said they couldn’t find the keys to let the inmates out, half of whom had not yet been charged for a crime and were waiting for a court date,” Greg said as he shook his head. “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life!” As he scanned some of the 14,000 photos he has taken on the mission trips, Greg spoke of the living Bible day camp, Kids Ark, started by a couple from Florida. Up to 400 children have attended the camp in one day to experience the Bible in actual scenes such as the tomb where Christ was laid and rose again. More biblical scenes are planned. Many older, donated school buses are seen in Honduras and one of Greg’s photos was a bus from Brainerd. The Crosby school district donated a bus to Salem West in 2007 which the volunteers used to go to Honduras. “But we haven’t used it again to go there as there’s too much trouble with gangs and drugs  both Mexico and Honduras,” said Greg. All volunteers pay their own expenses on mission trips. Salem West is also helping to support the Helping Hands orphanage in which 46 children live. The mission program also reaches out to Haiti where they help sponsor a lunch program for 300 children a day. Greg, who was born and raised in Richfield, earned a business management degree from the University of Minnesota. “But I always wanted to be a park ranger, too, so I went back to school to get a degree in recreation resource management. But that dream was never fulfilled,” he laughed. He moved to Brainerd in 1983 and worked for Ruttger’s Lodge for 12 years and still works there part time. His wife, Diane, is a teacher in the Brainerd School District and they have two grown daughter, Kellee and Kate. “I got involved with my church and decided to go back to school and took the non-ordained route with the ELCA at Luther Seminary,” he added. Looking at the future for Salem West, Greg said, “One of our big dreams is to pay off the Mustard Seed mortgage and then we can turn the rental apartment (in the same building) into transitional housing. It’s just another way we can help families to keep moving forward.” During a sermon at a Sunday worship service in May, Greg spoke about the winter months when the number of donations decrease . . . “We always experience a drop in donations during the middle of the winter, but this year was exceptionally slow. But despite my worries and concern, God provided just what we needed. Some weeks it was like the manna, we got just what we needed, but no extra. Every need was met throughout the winter. What is even more amazing is that we experienced record sales at The Mustard Seed in March. God is providing, God is answering prayers, God is in control. At the end of April our shelves are once again full and we are prepared to meet the needs of the people of our community.” Greg added that the entire ministry at Salem is God’s and the church and community is “blessed and privileged to be able to service Him.” There’s a message from Corinthians on the wall of Salem West to help encourage and remind the volunteers about the work they are doing for those in need — “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” The mission continues . . .

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