Homeless Ministry Makes Strides in First 10 Years
BY FLORENCE GILKESON
Imagine that first week back in 2000.
Faith congregations, volunteers and the staff wondered whether their effort was worth it.
A new nonprofit had been established to serve homeless families and help them to find permanent homes and meet other needs.
It was an elaborate arrangement involving multiple congregations and agencies, and the group, now known as Family Promise of Moore County, waited four weeks before the first homeless family emerged.
"We were a brand-new program, and we were distressed," recalls Susan Bellew, who has directed Family Promise since its inception 10 years ago. In those early days it was known as Sandhills Interfaith Hospitality Network.
They must have wondered if the need existed.
Today, as Family Promise prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, anyone who remembers that slack period may occasionally wish for a little less "business."
In the past year "a full house" has been normal week after week, with host churches rotating services every 11 weeks. Host congregations must have facilities large enough to accommodate at least 14 people for overnight stays of one week.
From that simple beginning, the nonprofit has served 551 individuals in 173 families - including 365 children - and provided 25,161 nights of shelter, all at church facilities and without cost to families or local taxpayers.
As the economy has worsened, a waiting list has been needed.
'Met a Need'
Ellen Stewart, one of 550 active volunteers, says the work is exhausting, both emotionally and physically. She coordinates volunteer services for her church, Southern Pines United Methodist, the congregation that initiated the movement.
Stewart is responsible for filling 42 different slots to serve the families housed at Southern Pines United Methodist. These volunteers, all of whom have received training, help with meals, transportation and other tasks, as well as provide personal service and security during the family's stay.
"It's exhausting for me because I'm so concerned that it goes well," Stewart says. "I don't want a child to fall and get hurt or get sick while they're staying with us."
At the same time, it is one of the most satisfying undertakings for any volunteer.
The average family consists of a single mother and one or more children, who simply have no place to spend the night and no resources.
"For a lot of people, the experience is overwhelming," Stewart says. "They can't think about anything but where they may lay their heads that night."
It's hard work but satisfying because volunteers are reaching out directly to those in need, a ministry of any faith-based group.
"You work hard for that week, but you know you've met a need," Stewart says.
Her husband, Dr. Bill Stewart, a pediatrician, also volunteers.
Shortly after the Rev. Mark Wethington had been appointed pastor of Southern Pines United Methodist Church, he noticed that needy families, including some homeless, would drop by the church office on occasion looking for help.
His former charge in Durham had conducted a ministry to the homeless, but that program was not family-oriented. Wethington, who now administers the Moore Free Care Clinic, noted that many of the needy were families.
His congregation agreed to explore the prospect of a new ministry and decided to seek community support. A meeting was called with the public invited.
And the public did indeed show up.
Wethington says the congregation set up about 20 chairs in the fellowship hall, and everyone was astonished when more than 100 showed up from several other churches as well as their own.
"We kept dragging out chairs," he says. "It was an incredible turnout and an incredible interest."
Among those in attendance was Susan Bellew, who became the first and only executive director of the program.
What made the meeting so successful was the immediate availability of several churches interested in participating.
From that initial seed grew a countywide network of willing congregations and volunteers eager to help needy families get on their feet.
The Sandhills Interfaith Hospitality Network, as it was known in those days, works on a simple premise.
Churches with sufficiently large facilities host homeless families one week at a time. Families spend the night at the church and have meals, with members of the host congregation assuming -responsibility for their comfort and safety.
In the morning, volunteers transport children to school or day care and adults with jobs to their places of employment. Transportation is provided at the end of the day.
During the days, when adults are not at work, they stay at the day center, where assistance is offered to help them find a job or permanent housing. Counseling is also available.
Bellew says cooperation among faith groups has been exceptional from the beginning, and apparently few had problems finding sufficient funding or volunteers.
Plunged Into Homelessness
The program did run into some opposition in the early days.
Bellew says many of the opponents associated homeless families with crime and drugs and serious mental illness. But this was not the type of family the program was designed to serve.
"These are moms with children and nowhere to go," Bellew says.
Bellew says that the public often simply does not understand the -situations that propel families into the homeless condition. Many work at low-paying jobs with no benefits and survive from paycheck to paycheck.
They are plunged into crisis when a family member becomes ill and cannot work, or perhaps the sick person is a grandparent with whom the family was living. The elderly relative may need permanent nursing care and must move out of the home. Or a job is lost.
Suitable housing has long been a scarce commodity in Moore County, and the situation has worsened in recent years.
"Our population has grown, but the number of affordable housing units has not grown," Bellew says.
Bellew says that the household with a monthly income of $1,247 cannot afford the average rental figure in excess of $600. That leaves little for food, medical care and other necessities.
Among these families' most critical needs is transportation. Program leaders quickly determined that many people lose jobs or are unable to find or accept jobs because they have no reliable means of transportation. Moore County is a big county without a general system of public transportation.
From that recognition grew an auxiliary service, Wheels to Work, which accepts donated vehicles and sells them at minimum cost to adults in dire need of transportation. One is not required to be homeless to qualify for this service, but many Family Promise clients have benefited.
In its first years, the program was headquartered in a building owned by Aberdeen's First Baptist Church. The building facing U.S. 1 formerly served as the church parsonage.
But in 2005, Family Promise found itself in danger of becoming homeless. The Baptist Church had growing pains and needed its building back.
A Southern Pines banker saved the day by launching a campaign to raise money, a project that led to the purchase of a larger house on Peach Street in Aberdeen. Donations from $10 to $1,000 poured in, and the day center was moved to its present location.
In 10 years, the program has changed names, extended its scope and moved its home, but the commitment of local faith groups is unchanged. The staff now includes Bellew and a full-time case manager, Tabitha Williams.
Nine of the 11 host congregations have been with Family Promise since the beginning. In addition to providing 550 volunteers, congregations have supported the program with generous contributions. It is estimated that church volunteers provide more than 13,000 hours of free service yearly. A number of other congregations provide support for the program.
These congregations provide the bulk of the support, but Family Promise also receives a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a grant from the Moore County Community Foundation. Family Promise stages one fundraiser, dubbed Harvest the Promise, at the Fair Barn in Pinehurst each year.
Family Promise will celebrate its 10 years of service with an old-fashioned family picnic at Aberdeen Lake Park Shelter Sunday afternoon. Everyone is invited to bring a side dish or dessert to enhance the picnic fare.
It will be a festive gathering of volunteers, donors and clients, some of whom have re-entered the program as volunteers after getting back on their feet. All they needed was a friendly boost.
Contact Florence Gilkeson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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