A journey that started in suburban New Jersey has found its way to the beautiful mountains of northwestern Virginia as the 200th Family Promise Affiliate has opened its doors. This remarkable milestone was celebrated Sunday, March 13, with presentations, music and dancing, a choir comprised of singers from seventeen churches and a visit from Family Promise’s founder and president emeritus, Karen Olson. Since 1986, communities across the US have formed Affiliates and in the process served more than 700,000 people—children and their families experiencing homelessness. The 200th Affiliate shows that while, unfortunately, the challenge of family homelessness stays with us, so does the capacity of volunteers to make a difference and help children and families regain their independence.
Not many would associate homelessness with the leafy small towns in Appalachia, like Woodstock, VA, the site of Family Promise of Shenandoah County’s Day Center. In fact, family homelessness remains a critical issue in diverse communities across the country, from inner cities to middle-class suburbs to rural villages. “Fifty children were identified as homeless by the Shenandoah County public schools last year,” said the Affiliate’s executive director, Sherry Arey. “But it’s challenging to get accurate numbers for how many families are actually homeless in the community. Many are reluctant to come forward for fear of have their children taken from them by social services. For every family we track, there are two to three others out there in need of our services.”
Efforts to develop an Affiliate began more than two years ago when a community meeting called to address the issue of homelessness drew 180 people to Antioch Church of the Brethren. Representatives from the national office attended and helped begin the intensive process of building support, raising funds and engaging the community. Board Chair Rev. George Bowers, Sr. spoke of the shared commitment at the grand opening, saying, “One of the special parts of this experience for me has been the privilege to meet so many wonderful people all over the Shenandoah Valley and far beyond. It’s incredible to see more than thirty churches come together to do this work.”
Nowhere is this collaborative spirit more evident than in the Day Center, which will provide guest families with access to laundry, showers, computers for job searches, personal storage units and space for parents and children to spend time together. The building was donated by Valley Health’s Shenandoah Memorial Hospital. Lowe’s adopted Family Promise of Shenandoah County as their Heroes Project, with volunteers from the local store donating more than 100 hours of time and labor to refurbish the facility and get it ready to serve families. Valspar contributed 30 gallons of paint. And furnishings were donated by individuals in the community.
Arey identified what makes Family Promise so effective, “This program makes homelessness a reality to people—it allows them to experience the needs of families first-hand. They meet parents and kids and see how they are affected and they say to themselves, ‘We can help.’ Our Affiliate will make a huge difference in Shenandoah County.”
Karen Olson was impressed by the new Affiliate’s efforts and their commitment to changing the lives of families in need. “It was a privilege and an honor to be a part of this special day. This is a very dynamic Affiliate with exceptional leadership and I know they are well poised for growth. Celebrating this landmark underlines how far we’ve come as an organization—this is something I never could have imagined when Family Promise started as a local program in Union County, NJ. Countless lives have been changed—not just the lives of homeless families but the lives volunteers as well.”