Wednesday, June 22, 2016 Voices of Family Promise
Our Community Blog: Claas Ehlers, President, Family Promise
Most of my childhood I lived in the suburbs. That is, two miles outside of a town of 300 people. There was a pond next to my house, filled with bullfrogs, snapping turtles and dragonflies; across from it was a field of cows on a dairy farm. I was the only child of a single mother and I remember as an eight year old walking along the road (this was the early 70s; kids did that then), picking wildflowers to bring home to my mom as a present.
She was always delighted with the bouquet of chicory, Queen Anne’s lace and daisies. (Even if sometimes I gathered them up at the start of my day, so they more resembled a clump of wilted scallions.) Why? Well, a small gesture like that speaks largely. It meant that I cared about her and wanted to do something nice. Flowers are emblematic of joy, love and hope. They are entirely unnecessary but profoundly meaningful.
Here at Family Promise we do a lot that is both necessary and meaningful. Our 180,000 volunteers give time and effort and money to ensure that lives are changed. Staff work incredibly long and hard hours so families regain self-sufficiency. And our guests face adversity and get through the toughest times of their lives through will, grit and grace.
But there are also a lot of little gestures, actions and items that don’t really have much value, that are inherent to Family Promise. The funny thing is, these are often what we remember most, what have the biggest impact.
Like flowers. When my church hosts, we get flowers for every family to have in their room. In spring, those are usually primroses, bright and colorful—they almost perfectly match a child’s drawing of a flower.
When we hosted last year, our coordinator was ill so I was one of several who stepped in to do the job. (The four of us together were about 40% as effective.) A new mom, and her young son came into the program mid-week. I was the coordinator on duty for that night, so I showed her around and brought her up to where they were staying, a Sunday school classroom on the second floor. My friend Suzanne and her daughter had created a welcome sign with her and her son’s name on it that was decorated artfully, including lovely drawings of flowers. The mom burst into tears—so surprised and so touched that she was special to strangers who did not even know her.
I thought of that earlier this spring when I visited our Affiliate in Skagit Valley, WA. There I met a single mom named Melissa who had been in the program. It was their one-year anniversary and she was the closing speaker for their celebration. She came to the podium and placed a small pot of pansies before her.
She told her story, going from successful, married businesswoman to a single mom staying in her parents’ house with her teenaged sons. Her church was hosting in the program, which had just started, and she decided to volunteer. It was after that that she realized that she was the kind of person others were volunteering for: A woman brave enough to make a new start in this crazy program of congregations and volunteers and day centers.
She made it a point to say she never was homeless, because with faith and community you always have a home. She shared how they made their way through the program, how she overcame all her hardships and also the painful circumstances that brought her there in the first place. Her family was now successfully housed; her sons thriving and she has the new life she deserves.
So, why the pot of pansies?
She cited all the life-changing elements and all the ways her family’s daily needs were met. She talked about how incredible the volunteers were; how dedicated the staff. Yet what touched her most was the presence of flowers at each of the host congregations.
They were, she said, a gift to the Affiliate. We all understood why.