CANARYVILLE — Ray Carey and Sharlene Lira know every nook and cranny of the Union Avenue United Methodist Church, founded 136 years ago with philanthropic help from the Swift & Co. meatpacking empire that began in the nearby Union Stock Yards.
They know the building at 4356 S. Union Ave. has been a hub of social service for decades, that community cookouts have pushed out the gangbangers that once loitered at the wooden cross out front, and that the food pantry feeds thousands of local families each month.
And they also know the resource program known as the Union Avenue Community Outreach is just about broke.
“It’s been like a faith walk. I don’t know how we’re even keeping our doors open,” said Carey, 66, a retired electrician and longtime youth program volunteer.
Whatever money does come is “spent already,” with program coordinators paying less on certain bills to help keep the others current.
“Done deal. That money’s gone,” Carey said.
It wasn’t always like this.
Throughout the years, the Union Avenue United Methodist Church became a magnet for area youths, where kids played darts and shot pool. Black-and-white photos show kids having a blast in the two-lane bowling alley downstairs.
Though modest, the upstairs parish — with its Johnson & Son organ that instrument historians say may rank among the city’s oldest — survived with a small but loyal congregation.
But the building eventually fell into disrepair, and the pews began to empty.
By the early 2000s, Carey and two partners applied for block grants from the city to bolster the money the group got from the state’s Teen REACH program, an offshoot of the Department of Human Services that provides a wide range of services to disadvantaged kids.
The youth component became the main focus of the outreach program. At its peak, it played host to about 80 kids a day, Carey and Lira said.
Lira taught girls to make bread and served hot meals daily. Carey led youth groups on camping trips, where he said many city kids gazed at stars for the first time. The group started a computer lab with donated equipment in a back room.
“This was like a neutral zone. Color didn’t matter, gangs didn’t matter,” Carey said.
The bottom dropped out in 2008, when the state yanked its Teen REACH funding, they said. Without that money, Carey had to pull the plug on the youth program altogether.
“It wasn’t gradual. It was ‘Boom, you’re closed,'” Lira said.
On its last legs, the outreach program still serves as a catch-as-catch-can resource center for the community.
Just this week, the food pantry served 137 families about 8,000 pounds of food, and Carey and Lira were instrumental in collecting and sorting donations after fire gutted four nearby homes earlier this month.
It all exists with two main sources of funding: about $2,000 from YouthWorks, a nationwide ministry program where a rotating cast of youth volunteers temporarily reside in the church building for the summer (boys in the gym; girls in the muggy upstairs sanctuary) and a patchwork of random donations from the community.
“They literally have nothing, but give everything,” said Emilee DeAngelis, 21, a YouthWorks program leader from San Diego.
During a recent visit, Lira and Carey showed off the church basement — a respite from the recent heat wave. The bowling alley was empty, and the arcade games were unplugged.
Carey, a streetwise Canaryville resident, just shook his head.
“I’ve got a place for kids, and I just can’t use it,” he said. “Just imagine if 80 of those kids weren’t out on the streets every day. “