By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
SHELBINA, Mo. -- In this county of almost 6,300 people, it's easy to know who drives outside Shelby County lines for cancer treatment.
The residents in small towns that speckle the county know whose first-floor living room flooded during the last storm or which family lost its home to a tornado. Families struggling to pay medical bills shop at the same grocery stores as those in good health. They attend the same churches and the same schools.
Neighbors know when something is not right, and in Shelby County, Neighbors Helping Neighbors aids its community on that very principle.
"We want to be a compassionate organization," Donna Mitchell, the group's organizer, said. "You have to be human."
Mitchell, who founded Neighbors Helping Neighbors, gathers each month with community members the Father Buhman Center in Shelbina to nominate community members who may need a monetary boost.
Volunteer Linda Wallace said the organization keeps its qualifications simple. They pass the funding on to those with climbing medical expenses or who have been removed from their homes because of fire, flood or tornado. As the volunteers swap the news they've heard from the grocery store checkout lines, gas pumps, church pews and the local newspaper, they write $250 checks.
The funding for the checks comes from donations, memorials and a yearly fundraiser. The organization will have its annual dinner and auction at 11 a.m. March 3 at the Father Buhman Center.
As the organization has gained local notoriety, it has received larger donations and has pursued 501(c)3 status. As an example, an unknown farmer annually takes a load of beans to the elevator in Monroe City and asks that the check be sent anonymously to the group. The check this year totaled more than $1,000.
Mitchell marvels at the Shelby County communities' generosity. Shelby County had a median income of $35,124 for 2007-11, but the community has generated more than $100,000 in the past three years for their neighbors.
"Maybe some people don't have a load of beans to give, but they can do $5 or $10, and that helps," Wallace said.
Those small donations can add up to one bigger gesture for individuals. The checks the organization has given to Jennifer Mason won't pay for the treatments needed to keep the 24-year-old's stage 3-C ovarian cancer at bay, nor will they ease her student workload in Western Illinois University's hotel and restaurant management program. However, they do ease some of the monetary strain. The extra $250 filled Mason's gas tank as she traveled from her classes in Macomb, Ill., to her treatments in St. Louis.
"Even the smallest amount of money can really help," Mason said.
The gift from Neighbors Helping Neighbors reminded Mason that even as she lives away from home as a college student, the community that she'd grown up in still supports her.
"Knowing that it came from the community and knowing that it came from all of these different people, it was just really touching," Mason said.
Wallace, a retired Shelby County schoolteacher, remembered the day the group counted Mason among the 167 community members for whom they've written checks. She had taught Mason and recognized her name along with a couple other former students. One had sustained significant injuries in a car accident. Another's husband faced a serious medical diagnosis.
"These are young people in their 20s facing some amazing things," Wallace said. "That was one of the more depressing meetings for me."
As the group distributes the checks, it does so without judgment. The organization doesn't examine income or insurance when preparing a gift. It only factors in the tragedy.
"We shouldn't judge, and we're not going to judge," Mitchell said.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors draws its boundaries with the eight ZIP codes tied to Shelby County's schools. Some of the people the organization has helped live outside county boundaries, but they have invested in the community by attending its churches and schools, and working in its businesses. The group has appointed a representative for each ZIP code to bring forth each area's needs. Surprise checks are given with no obligation and full anonymity for the recipient.
"We're going to miss some people," Mitchell said. "We just do the best that we can. If we don't know about, it we can't help them."
Wealthier recipients have returned the gifts and asked that the organization give them to someone else. Others have temporarily accepted the gift, then in turn made a matching donation once the difficulty passes. Many of those receiving checks for ongoing medical expenses have asked that memorials be made to Neighbors Helping Neighbors upon their death.
Lately, more money comes in than needs to go out. The community knows the money helps the people they see every day, and that's why Mitchell believes the program has grown as fast as it has.
"We just really try to be good stewards of the money," she said. "To make sure that it's used the way we said it's going to be used, for the community."