By Travis Duerksen
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – Sharon Williams' Bible study group had just concluded when she heard the news. It was the spring of 2012, and the Pennsylvania State legislature had passed a law requiring photo IDs in order to vote, catching many people, Williams included, off-guard. Donna Windle, who had brought the news to the group, knew firsthand what effect that would have on many people in their community of Norristown, Pennsylvania. 

"As a social worker, [Donna] was keenly aware that a lot of people don't have photo IDs," said Williams. "They're difficult to get, especially if you don't have the money and don't know how to walk through the jungle of getting all your documents together."

Pennsylvania charges a fee for photo IDs and requires a social security card and proof of residency for application. The IDs expire after four years. Williams and Windle proposed the idea of hosting a photo ID clinic to their home congregation of Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church. Based in the church's youth center building, the clinic would help clients organize and submit the documents needed for a photo ID, as well as pay the processing fee through money orders.

The church agreed, and Windle began training volunteers to help at the clinic. News of the training brought curious volunteers from Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and even as far away as Boston, eager to learn about the clinic.

"We thought we were just training our own volunteers," recalled Williams. "But we ended up helping other communities turn around and do the same thing that we were doing."

In the time since its creation in May 2012, the clinic has become a staple of the Norristown community. While the law that inspired the clinic was found to be unconstitutional and struck down in 2014, the need for photo IDs has continued to grow. The cost of IDs has grown as well, from $13.50 in 2012 to $30.50 in 2019.

That cost, said Anna Perkins, one of the clinic coordinators, is often too much for people already just scraping by. While the clinic is partially funded through the Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church, it also depends on donations and grants from individuals and organizations like the Peace and Justice Support Network (PJSN). In 2018, the clinic was awarded a $1,000 "Spread the Peace" grant from PJSN to help continue paying ID registration fees and to expand volunteer training. PJSN is a ministry of Mennonite Mission Network.

"There's a continuous need," said Perkins. "Each individual who comes has a story of what led them there." Some clients come to the clinic having lost their identification papers in the middle of an unexpected move. Others need a photo ID before an employer will hire or pay them. Still others need the ID in order to register their children for school.

In 2018, the New Life Photo ID clinic helped more than 200 clients receive photo IDs. "It gives us a chance to build relationships," said Williams, "to touch the lives of people in our community."


Travis Duerksen is a writer and multimedia producer at Mennonite Mission Network.



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