Fifty years ago it was a pond and, for the past 15 or so years, it sat vacant. This past April, however, the open field on Wheeler Road across from Surrey Center became home to Fireside Fresh.
This market, selling everything from fresh vegetables and fruits to plants, local honey, canned goods, skincare products and more, is the latest in a long list of projects under the Fireside Ministries and Industries, Inc. umbrella. Begun by Phin and Jan Hitchcock 23 years ago, Fireside Ministries aims to restore people and places through hands-on and resulted-oriented programs.
“I’m from Augusta and we want to share the Gospel as we go to folks in our area and we kind of use plants and veggies as a bridge to build relationships,” Phin explained. “And it works.”
Sure, Phin and his workers are in the business to sell what they buy and grow, a portion of the proceeds of which go to other Fireside Ministries projects, but they’re just as happy to chat with visitors about, for instance, the raised beds that sit beside the market.
“It’s just an easy way to grow things,” Phin explained about the beds, in which they grow tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers. “Anybody can do it and we love people to come up and see how they can do it. Mainly, we want to show people what you can do in a small amount of space. And, you know, we like to share Fireside Ministries with people who come. We give out magnet verses and Gospel bracelets with people who come and just build relationships with people here in Sand Hills. A lot of folks just walk here from their homes. It’s convenient and we think it’s a good spot.”
Since opening this past spring, Phin spends a good portion of his days at the market, digging in the dirt and talking to people. When he’s not at Fireside Fresh, he’s usually traveling to other area markets to buy produce or visiting his other ministries.
“I stay out here most of the time, but I do go back and forth,” he said. “We have a woodworking shop downtown where we build things for people, like dining room tables out of old doors and things like that. We’re involved with Turn Back the Block in Harrisburg, where we do one house at a time, and a lot of the old wood that is taken out of those houses we have stored in a warehouse and we do reclaimed projects with that — cutting boards, all kinds of things.”
Some of the finished products, built by homeless or formerly homeless men enrolled in Fireside Ministries’ job skills program, are sold at Charleston Street Fine Flowers and Events, owned by Greg Boulus, who also happens to be the market’s landlord.
“He sells some of the cutting boards and butcher block tables,” Phin said of Charleston Street. “The program, it’s just a way to utilize things that some people just throw away.”
Phin’s comes by his love for gardening honestly. He and his wife, up until the time they started Fireside Ministries, owned a greenhouse on Boy Scout Road and began their outreach by planting gardens in public housing area. From there, they did a similar program at the Youth Detention Center that also included Bible studies before, eventually, beginning Heritage Academy.
“That pretty much consumed a lot of our time and resources,” he said. “We started with five children and, now, this coming fall, we’ll have 200.
Located in the old Houghton School on Greene Street, the private K-8 school opened in 2001 in a temporary location.
“We started praying for it in 2000 and, in 2007, we were able to purchase it (the old Houghton School) from Clay Boardman, who had bought it and called us the week after and said his family thought that would be our permanent home. So we raise a million dollars and another $1.4 million to renovate it. We had a lot of volunteer help, over 50,000 hours of volunteer help. We feel privileged to be a part of that process. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. These kids need a choice of quality Christian education which they didn’t have. We love to tell the story and these kids are our story.”
One thing is clear: Whether it be at the school, the wood shop or the market, Phin and Jan have a lot of community support. At Heritage Academy, they were able to motivate the local community to raise $2.4 million and donate tens of thousands of man hours. At the market, they’ve received donations of tents, fencing, windows from the old Sutherland Mill for greenhouses and more. Not only that, they had help from Club Car and the United Way in building and filling the raised beds.
Phin says it’s because people see a need for the services they provide.
“It’s local and we send a lot of our money through missions overseas, and we should continue to do that, but there’s a lot to do locally,” he said. “People need help and that’s we we’ve been doing this for 23 years.”