GPA Intermodal Manager Richard Burkhalter’s local outreach movement started with a walk to work and a loaf of bread.
In 2014, Burkhalter and his wife, Erika, moved from Effingham County to downtown Savannah, just two blocks away from historic Forsyth Park. On her way to the office, Erika noticed many people in need of a helping hand. So, the couple began wrapping up sandwiches to hand out along Erika’s route.
This was the beginning of Urban Missionary 912, the Burkhalters’ grassroots effort to help the community around them.
“We just knew we wanted to help people,” Burkhalter said. “No matter what that looked like — whether it was big or small, even if it was just us.”
The couple has always been passionate about serving the community in which they live. They previously volunteered with outreach groups in Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio. Burkhalter said it’s important for them to meet the needs of those who live around them.
“It’s important to us to serve people right where we are,” Burkhalter said.
The Burkhalters found other churches, organizations and groups in downtown Savannah shared their passion for serving. Burkhalter said partnerships have allowed them to reach more people in the community.
One such partnership led Urban Missionary 912 to assist People Helping People and Hosanna Helpers in distributing food at Forsyth Park. Urban Missionary 912 partners with the outreach monthly, feeding more than 60 children and several single mothers.
Every other month, the groups unite to serve 500 hot meals to anyone in need. Burkhalter said so far this year, Urban Missionary 912 has helped serve 1,600 hot meals in Forsyth Park. In addition, the group regularly purchases groceries for single mothers as well as clothing and household items for families in downtown Savannah. The group also partners with Hosanna Helpers to provide hot meals for residents living in a transitional housing facility near Ogeechee Road.
At the end of July, Urban Missionary 912 participated in a back-to-school bash at the park. Children in the community received backpacks and school supplies as part of the initiative. Urban Missionary 912 sponsored a child going into kindergarten, providing uniform, shoes and other supplies necessary for the school year. The group also spearheads a large Christmas celebration in the park, filling 150 stockings with donated toys for local children. Santa Claus even stops by to join in the festivities.
“We turn it into a big carnival where everybody walks away with a stocking full of toys,” Burkhalter said.
Burkhalter said social media has been a powerful tool in reaching other volunteers and supporters. He recently completed a marathon and an ultra marathon to raise money for Urban Missionary 912’s outreach effort. By posting 30-second videos on the group’s social media channels, more people were able to sponsor his runs.
The Burkhalters provide much of the supplies and food themselves, but many other churches, groups, friends and even strangers routinely step in to help. Richard said recently, a group from GPA’s Trade Development department pooled contributions for Urban Missionary 912’s efforts.
Burkhalter said individuals and groups often contribute in-kind and monetary donations. The group’s service in the area has also allowed them to build relationships with local businesses that have started offering discounts for the Forsyth meals.
“Being involved where you are lets people know who you are,” Burkhalter said.
Urban Missionary 912 also has plans to adopt a school in downtown Savannah, where many children served by the Forsyth outreach attend. This initiative will provide teachers with supplies needed for their classrooms.
“We see the need on a daily basis. We see people sleeping in the park, and know there’s not enough beds for everyone,” Burkhalter said. “By volunteering our time and resources, we are able to invest in our community and build potentially life-changing relationships.”