Esther Ulmer is one of those tireless church workers who is widely admired for turning good ideas into reality--in this case, a ministry to the needy that has brought honors to her and Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Canoga Park.
After expanding a small food pantry at the church into a regular food-and-clothing distribution center, Ulmer worked for nearly three years to add a medical clinic. She accomplished it, in the words of one doctor, by "cutting all the red tape and scrounging for all the equipment."
"Esther is the clinic," said Dr. Myron Greengold of Northridge Hospital Medical Center.
So it surprised and saddened friends and associates to learn that Ulmer, 71, had a stroke on Jan. 24 while walking with a Northridge neighbor. She left the intensive care unit of Granada Hills Community Hospital this week and was "doing as well as can be expected," said her husband, Milton Ulmer.
"We were all amazed when we heard because she is a woman of vitality who took good care of herself," said Jerome Nilssen, area director of the Van Nuys-based Lutheran Social Services.
Only 11 days earlier, at a pan-Lutheran breakfast attended by representatives of 32 Lutheran congregations in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, Esther Ulmer and her church were presented with Lutheran of the Year and Lutheran Church of the Year awards by Lutheran Social Services. In May, Ulmer accepted The Times Valley Edition Community Project Award on behalf of her congregation.
"Esther has never grabbed the spotlight but has always been one of that small tribe of very effective volunteers who is good at organizing people," said Nilssen, who met Ulmer when she worked part-time at Lutheran Social Services. He said she left the agency in 1988 to open the food pantry at Our Redeemer.
"She appreciated getting her award, but I think the fact that her parish project moved from adolescence to maturity pleased her even more," Nilssen said.
Her congregation, affiliated with the theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, draws an average of 200 people for Sunday services. The Rev. Gregory Barth, who became pastor in 1990, said he pushed to expand the social ministry, hiring Ulmer as part-time director of what the church called its human care ministry.
In 1991, the church, which faces Winnetka Avenue, bought a two-bedroom house on a lot adjacent to its rear that serves as the human care center. Vegetables are grown there for the food program, which otherwise depends on donated goods. The pastor said that about 100 church members get involved in volunteer aid during the year.
"Every year we've tried to add one new dimension," Barth said. "We've added showers for the homeless, bus token distribution and we now have a brown-bag program for about 70 seniors who come by on Friday for lunch."
Operating on a $26,000 annual budget that is separate from the church budget, the center during 1995 helped 10,732 people, gave out 96,588 food parcels, provided 354 showers, 89 haircuts and helped 1,550 people with clothing gifts. The statistics do not include Thanksgiving and Christmas food and gifts baskets.
"We keep a record of all the people we help on cards," said Duane Reed, current director of the human care ministries. "If you are not homeless, you can come back every 30 days for clothes. If you are homeless, you can come once a week for clothing and a shower, for instance."
The center distributes food and clothing for three hours on Wednesday afternoons and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.
Donald Souders, who was there recently with his four children, lives in Reseda. He said somewhat apologetically that he has come for help only three times. "I don't come unless I really need it, because I don't want to take anything from other people," Souders said.
One small room in the house serves as a medical examining facility--Esther Ulmer's latest project. It is open Tuesdays from 3 to 7 p.m. and staffed by volunteer physicians from the Family Practice Center at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.
"She came to us 2 1/2 years ago and got it going after running into some difficulty getting proper licensing from city departments," said Greengold, program director of the Family Practice Center, which he characterized as a three-year residency program that teaches newly graduated physicians to become family doctors.
The Family Practice Center near the hospital mostly serves people who lack medical insurance or are underinsured with low-cost care, "but at the Lutheran church, everything is given away--gratis," said Greengold.
Barth said it surprised the congregation when Ulmer, "a high-level-energy person," was hospitalized, but members offered any help they could, he said.
"We're praying she'll come through. We know she's a very strong-willed woman," he said.