By Caroline Dennis
NORTH AUGUSTA—This year in America, more than 2.5 million children and their parents will experience homelessness. Family Promise and Grace United Methodist Church are doing something about this problem.
Karen Olson, founder of Family Promise, was rushing to a business meeting when she passed a homeless woman on the street. On impulse, Olson bought her a sandwich. The woman, Millie, accepted the sandwich but asked for something more—a chance to be heard. Olson stayed with Millie and listened. What she heard made her understand that homelessness brought profound feelings of diminished self-worth and disconnection from society. Soon after, Olson and her two sons began delivering lunches to homeless people on the streets of New York.
When Olson learned homelessness was affecting families right in her own community in New Jersey, she knew she had to do something. But this was much more than giving sandwiches. She brought together people in need and people who wanted to help. Existing community resources could provide shelter, meals and housing. Volunteers could use their skills, knowledge and compassion to help their homeless neighbors find employment, reconnect with society and restore their dignity.
She approached the religious community. Congregations offered hospitality space within their buildings. The YMCA provided showers and a family day center. A car dealer discounted a van. The first interfaith hospitality network opened on Oct. 27, 1986.
As word spread, more New Jersey congregations formed a second network. Other congregations were inspired to develop similar programs. In 1988, they formed the National Interfaith Hospitality Network to bring the program nationwide. In addition to shelter, meals, housing and job-seeking support, affiliates began developing programs for transitional housing, childcare and homelessness prevention. Nationally, they added programs like Just Neighbors and Family Mentoring.
In 1992, the now-named Family Promise was awarded by President and Barbara Bush as one of 21 Points of Light out of a field of more than 4,500 nominees.
With a broad range of programs and a vision of ending family homelessness, Family Promise refers to the promise, in the sense of commitment, that communities make to families in need. But it also refers to the promise, or potential, inherent in every family. Family Promise has come to represent not just the programs that touch the lives of more than 50,000 people in need annually and engage more than 180,000 volunteers. It represents a national movement that believes all can address family homelessness right in our own communities.
Grace became the first church on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River to join the Augusta Family Promise Network. Families arrived on Sunday and spent the week. More than 300 hours of volunteers served meals, set up and tore down, washed sheets and decorated rooms, played with kids , talked to parents, stayed overnight and made sure every thing went smoothly. Grace members said they are excited to be part of this ministry.
Families must be at least one parent or grandparent with minor children. There is a comprehensive application process and strict expectations to participate in the program. Families are given up to 90 days of support shelter, food, transportation, child care, training sessions, access to computers and assistance in job searches, laundry and shower facilities, case management and encouragement. Families leave the program by choice or successful accomplishment of a place to live, a job to support the family and transportation and childcare needs met.
Family Promise continues to help after the 90 days to those families who have not yet been able to make it on their own with transitional programs.
For Grace, this was a wonderful opportunity to help serve in the community, open our doors to people in need, share God’s love through food and fellowship and get to know people they would not otherwise meet. Grace will provide shelter and care again during the Christmas week and fill in should another church not be able to do their week.
Members said they continue to be excited about the new things happening at Grace and how they can fulfill their mission to “Know Christ and Make His Love Known.”
By Caroline Dennis