Always a Season for GivingDec 01, 2021 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
When you enter Sister Jenny’s Outreach Center in Middlebury Center, Pennsylvania, you’ll find yourself in a cozy room with a big desk, comfy chairs, and large oval table. The homey living room/dining room feel contrasts with the outside—a simple gray warehouse structure, softened by welcoming white Adirondack chairs. You’ll soon learn that everyone is welcome at the table. And it’s even bigger than it appears.
A small woman with short blonde hair, and warm smile will tell you to make yourself comfortable and ask what you need. A cup of coffee? A box of food? A winter coat? An apartment for you and your kids?
Sister Jenny is ninety and has been helping folks in Tioga County for forty years. United Christian Ministries, which incorporated thirty-five years ago, has grown into three shelters, an outreach center providing food, toys, clothing, and household items, and a mission and program center that offers space to other organizations and events. All free of charge.
Past county commissioners told her she’s the best-kept secret in Tioga County. Not because she’s trying to be, but social media and websites require new skills and more time than this busy woman can find. Still, police, parole officers, and case workers all know who to call when help is needed.
United Christian Ministries is a social ministry not affiliated with any particular church. “There is no proselytizing and no requirements,” she says. Every single person regardless of beliefs, ethnicity, gender identity or orientation is loved and cared for. She smiles. “At first some churches were concerned I’d lure their parishioners away”—a process called “stealing sheep.”
“I told them, I don’t want your sheep. Send me your goats!” Her voice is soft, but her wit is sharp. She explains she is not and never has been a nun but was given her moniker by folks in the Cowanesque Valley. “It’s a spiritual name. I guess it could’ve been worse, they could’ve called me Mother Boley.”
At that time Virginia E. Boley (her real name) was only fifty and had recently relocated to Osceola. She’d grown up in West Virginia—you can still hear the South in her speech—got her PhD in clinical psychology (counseling), and for years operated a successful restaurant in Chester County. She had a keen business sense, both for numbers and for people. But she had no calling. Back then, she says, “I knew about Jesus, but I didn’t know Him personally.” She knows many will roll their eyes at the story of her spiritual journey. Nonetheless, she’ll share it with anyone who’ll listen.
It started with a fox hunting accident when a horse kick smashed her leg. A long steel rod was put in, intended to be there forever. She experienced great pain and limited mobility. Then at a healing service—knowing nothing about the Holy Spirit—Sister Jenny was changed. “I went home and ran up and down the stairs. Soon I felt a new pain in my knee. The doctors said it was the rod trying to come out. They removed it soon afterwards.”
Today, at ninety, she moves easily throughout the warehouse, showing a visitor where boxes of food are packed and handed out. This supplemental food pantry also responds to emergency needs. Other food pantries might only serve their zip codes and receive donations from the community. This one receives food from the Central PA Food Bank, serves all of Tioga County, and can be visited in addition to other pantries. They’ve recently received permission to serve Potter County, too. On the second Saturday of each month, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., cars holding up to two families drive through the warehouse to receive pre-packed boxes.
The other side of the warehouse, open Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., holds clothing and household goods. This area is also the location of their Toys for Tots delivery. She’s not sure what it will look like this year, but pre-pandemic, free soup and hot dogs were distributed while families picked up the toys they’d pre-registered for in November as a bluegrass band played. Over one thousand families register each year.
Recognizing that feeding and clothing people isn’t enough for people lacking a warm place to sleep, Sister Jenny sold her home and restaurant downstate and opened Garnet House in 1987. This women’s shelter, in the former CMA Church and parsonage in Osceola, was purchased by Sister Jenny and named for her sister. Garnet House offers rooms to eight women. They’ve held GED classes, community programs, even weddings and funerals. In the early years, food pantry items were brought in to teach cooking skills and feed occupants.
In 1997, a men’s shelter followed. Kenner Court in Tioga houses thirteen men while giving them access to job training and other programs to help get them back on their feet. David’s by the Lake in Lawrenceville has three family apartments on 2.5 acres with outside play areas for kids. Every shelter has rules and chores. All together the ministry has forty-two beds.
There are six paid full-time staff members and lots of volunteers, including twenty who help each distribution day. But the busiest volunteer is Sister Jenny, who takes no salary. As executive director, she works alongside her husband Ed Clemens, director of operations. Now her son Dave has joined them as he prepares to take over the ministry. “My mother told me ‘I’m either going to leave it to you or the county,’” he says. “This is her legacy. I’m here to continue that.”