For nearly four decades, the Multi-Cultural Center has been a beacon of hope and last resort for Palestine's most vulnerable residents.

Just ask George Black.

After more than 12 years in Tennessee Colony’s Powledge Unit, Black came home three years ago with only $50 in cash, one set of street clothes, and a month’s supply of prescription medications.

Among the thousands of returning citizens released from Texas prisons each year, he was one of the lucky ones.

After Black, 56, served time for burglary, a family member brought him to the Multi-Cultural Education Center in Palestine, a nonprofit that connects 25-30 recently released prisoners each year – men and women – with resources to help them make a successful transition into their communities.

Altogether, the center helps nearly 200 people a month. For people without homes, jobs, or even food, the MCEC has served as a thrift shop, food pantry, classroom, jobline, and crisis center.

People are helped without charge. Some need a job. Others need GED classes, a gas voucher to get to work, or assistance with an electric or water bill. If the center turns someone away, he or she is referred to an agency that can help. MCEC also refers job seekers to Sanderson Farms or Walmart. 

The MCEC does all that, and more, on a bare bones budget of $38,000-a-year – most of it from the thrift shop, as well as grants from the United Way of East/Central Texas and Walmart. The center's director, Betty Nickerson, does not receive a salary; nor do the center’s eight volunteers. Their kindness comes straight from their hearts.

With an aging building and rising utility costs, however, a center that has rebuilt so many lives now needs rebuilding itself.

The 1,500-square foot building, though full of activity, needs a new roof, ceiling, floors, lighting, windows, offices, kitchen, restroom, and a play area for children while their parents shop, Nickerson told the Herald-Press.

Last year, the center wrestled with plumbing problems that shut down its restrooms for a year. The MCEC asked the city for help and hired plumbing companies to dig up pipes before the problem was fixed. The center paid more than $5,000 in plumbing bills, but also received 375 feet of donated pipe.

I can’t be selfish

Miss Betty, as Nickerson is also known, is the MCEC’s backbone, an East Texas version of Mother Theresa. One of her eight children experienced substance abuse problems, but her heart also aches for others facing addiction.

“I can’t be selfish,” Miss Betty said. “I have to be giving; that’s what we’re taught to do.”

The MCEC aims to meet the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of local residents.

Carl Barrett, 70, first came to the center 37 years ago; he struggled with substance abuse for decades. Drugs, forgery, and parole violations ended with several prison bids, adding up to 15 years.

“[Miss Betty] stayed with me,” Barrett said, recalling times when she gave him food, let him stay in her house, and found him a job. Now, Barrett calls her “Mama.”

“It wasn’t just one time [Barrett] was forgiven,” Miss Betty said. “I knew something good would come out of him someday.” 

For Black, receiving food, household items, and four sets of gently-used clothing made a big difference, after returning to the world with almost nothing. His sister took him in, allowing him to live in her home. 

Black is still young enough to work, but years of substance abuse have taken their toll. Before he was locked up, Black worked for a roofing company. He can no longer do that kind of work, as he suffers from Type II Diabetes, neuropathy, and congestive heart failure. Black said he has visited the emergency room more than two dozen times since his release.

“Ex-prisoners need referrals, insurance, and emergency room visits,” Black said. “People return to their ways because they don’t have a place to go or means or resources.” 

Ray Nickerson, one of Miss Betty’s sons, is the MCEC’s volunteer public relations director. He interviews parolees, vets their applications, and records their names and ID numbers. He also records a description and dollar value of received items. He said each set of clothing, including shoes and belts, has a value of $125. 

“Whatever it is they need to get a new start, we try to provide, as long as it’s here in the store,” Nickerson said.

Most agencies in Anderson County refer former prisoners to MCEC, he said, as does Texas 2-1-1, a statewide and state-funded referral system. The center typically provides resources to residents of Anderson, Smith, Leon, and Rusk counties.

The former prisoners are grateful for the service. “It’s something they didn’t expect, and we’re giving them a helping hand,” Nickerson said. 

Barrett, who now attends church services, said he would like to assist others struggling with substance abuse. He wants to give back. “I was a rascal,” Barrett said. “By the grace of God, I’m here today.”

The building, at 1402 W. Oak St., draws hundreds of curious shoppers looking for good bargains. The sales produce enough for the center’s overhead costs, but any amount earned above that goes to help people in crisis. Gently used clothing and household items come to the MCEC as donations, which volunteers clean and prepare for resale. 

Though 80, Miss Betty has no plans for slowing down. She talks about the need for more volunteers to help in the center’s community garden, or work in the office, writing letters and filing quarterly reports. For Miss Betty, every day is a new opportunity to help someone.

If you would like to donate to MCEC, make checks payable to:

Multi-Cultural Education Center, 1402 W. Oak St., Palestine, Texas 75801.

For information, call 903-729-3488.

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