Take 5 with Lee Anna Stoker
Outreach with Lee Anna Stoker
It’s those who are dispossessed–the homeless, victims of sex trafficking, commercial sex workers, those with addictions–who make up LEE ANNA STOKER’s crew. Stoker, who is the co-founder and executive director of First Fruit Ministries, reaches out to these individuals and provides resources to help them regain their lives.
“The ministry is an expression of my passion to encounter people in the midst of deep struggle and show them compassion,” she says. “I go and find people in the toughest situations, walk with them, and we figure out the path forward together.”
Stoker has always been driven to help others. While earning a degree in community organizing and development from Evergreen State College in Washington state, she served as an AFL-CIO labor union organizer for farm workers in California and restaurant and hospitality workers in New Orleans. After graduation, Stoker worked with international non-government organizations that developed technologies for Incan farmers in the Andes mountains.
Stoker founded First Fruit Ministries after she moved to Wilmington in the late 90s; the organization started rather humbly. Rather than ignoring the homeless they passed in the streets, Stoker and her future husband brought them food and supplies. Soon, the couple formalized their ministry, and it evolved into an organization that provides comprehensive free services for those who live on the fringes of society.
In addition to street outreach, First Fruit Ministries offers day shelter, which includes showers, meals, and supplies; both permanent housing for the chronically homeless and rapid re-housing for those who need help with short-term rental assistance; and a food pantry.
First Fruit Ministries also addresses trafficking. It provides safe, stable housing and holistic support for victims of human trafficking; and it is the home of the Collaborative Against Sex Trafficking, Stoker’s initiative to support a sex trafficking response network on the Carolina Coast.
The ministry partners with MedNorth Health Center to provide medical services, and its team of case managers and social workers ensures individuals and families get the appropriate services. An extensive team of volunteers rounds out the staff.
Stoker has a full slate of new services for those experiencing difficult life situations.
First up is the Sunday family dinner, at which the unsheltered will be brought to the ministries’ campus to dine. Then Stoker plans to increase the number of permanent support houses for the chronically homeless and those with severe cognitive challenges; open the food pantry for an additional day, and offer meals for special populations such as those with diabetes and mothers of preschool-aged children. Stoker is also developing a crisis response 24-hour shelter that offers short-term housing for victims of sex trafficking and sexual assault.
“We are hardcore,” says Stoker. “We see a need and we go after it. Not on my watch will a girl be released, and her only choice is to go back to the place where she was assaulted or to wander the sidewalk.”
While tackling some of the most egregious ills afflicting our society would be daunting to many, Stoker thrives on the challenge.
“I feel like I have been given the ability to solve difficult problems,” she says. “I feel like I have a moral imperative to find solutions to them.”
Take 5 with Lee Anna Stoker
WHERE DOES THE NAME FIRST FRUIT MINISTRIES COME FROM? “When Rick (Stoker) and I started the ministry, we weren’t thinking long term about building an organization. We were entirely focused on meeting the emergency needs of people we saw suffering in the city. It was our first fruit offering to the Lord; walking away from our regular lives, giving up our income and our safety, and answering a call to ministry.”
WHAT IS YOUR ESTIMATION AS TO HOW MANY PEOPLE YOU’VE HELPED TO DATE THROUGH THE WORK YOU DO? “In twenty-four years of ministry, I have an accurate data count of more than 800,000 individuals served. We started serving meals to unsheltered individuals in 1998 and opened our first housing program for women and families who were experiencing homelessness or trafficking in 2000. More than 1,200 people eat from our food pantry weekly. Almost 37,000 people used our pantry in 2021 alone. We have more than thirty units of housing from crisis response transitional spots and short-term rapid rehousing, to fully supported permanent housing. In 2021, we served more than 600 people living outside in Wilmington!”
HOW DO YOU SURVIVE FINANCIALLY? “We receive support from individuals, foundations, and various government grant programs. To be part of First Fruit Ministries is to accept an invitation to do the best thing I can think of, which is to practice loving others well in their moment of greatest need. Others can support us financially by going to our website, FirstFruitMinistries.org, and becoming donors. They can join us as volunteers and even train to be mentors and advocates for people experiencing human trafficking and homelessness.”
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FUTURE OF FIRST FRUIT MINISTRIES? “I want to create a campus where people who find themselves in crisis in our community, whether it’s a woman or a child being trafficked and sold for sex, or someone who’s lived in a tent for years as a victim of their own mental health or substance use struggles, or even someone struck by the vagaries of life, can be wrapped in unconditional love. But love without action is dead. My hope for the future of the ministry is that it will continue to be a place that is generous, relational, and authentic in its service to others.”
WHAT IS ONE THING YOU’D LIKE OUR READERS TO KNOW ABOUT THE PEOPLE YOU SERVE? “When I talk about the work we do, I regularly get questions like, ‘Why don’t they just get a job?’ Conversations take on the form of blame-shifting and black-and-white thinking. Often, outside impressions of what it is to be homeless or a victim of trafficking are usually formed from incomplete information and a bit of arrogance. As we mature and grow, we begin to see that the world is chaotic, that suffering is not simply a product of our poor choices, and that humility is the only honest response to clear thinking.”
To view more of photographer Daria Amato’s work, go to dariaphoto.com
Want more WILMA? Click here to sign up for our WILMA newsletters and announcements.