Uniting to offer lifeline to homeless families

A convent that had been sitting vacant will get new life as the resource center for Family Promise of Southern Chester County, a multi-denominational initiative to assist homeless families.

Two winters ago, a spate of punishing snowstorms took a toll on families who were already teetering on the brink of solvency – from losing hundreds of dollars of groceries during power outages to having fallen trees decimate uninsured residences.

Representatives of more than 20 churches in southern Chester County assemble to sign up for Family Promise, a program designed to alleviate homelessness.

Representatives of more than 20 churches in southern Chester County assemble to sign up for Family Promise, a program that will use existing facilities to help families rebound from economic setbacks.

Despite the region’s affluence, the many families left homeless strained area service agencies and overloaded shelters, prompting an emergency meeting organized by United Way of Southern Chester County. Dave Haradon, a member of Longwood Rotary, recalled that United Way CEO Carrie Freeman posed the question: What can we do to fix this unacceptable situation?

The answer to alleviating the problem came a step closer to fruition last week. On Wednesday, July 15, representatives from more than 20 congregations gathered to sign a one-year commitment with Family Promise of Southern Chester County (FPSCC), a newly-formed, multi-denominational collaboration that will offer needy families a lifeline.

The celebratory signing by volunteers followed thousands of conversations and hundreds of meetings – spearheaded by United Way and Kennett Area Community Service (KACS). “The number of people hours has been incredible,” Haradon said, adding that the decision to duplicate the Family Promise program represented the easy part of the process. “They were already doing what we wanted to accomplish."

In addition, Haradon said the New Jersey-based nonprofit had distinguished itself as a model for transitioning struggling families from despair to hope. It was also willing to assist the fledgling operation, Haradon said. The more challenging accomplishments were persuading churches to get involved and raising funds, he said.

Kate Uhler, discusses Family Promise with volunteer Mary Boeni during a reception following the signing ceremony.

Kate Uhler, the emergency assistance case manager for Kennett Area Community Service, discusses Family Promise with Mary Boeni, a member of the FPSCC Church Recruitment Committee, during a reception following the signing ceremony.

The Family Promise program, which has nearly 200 affiliates nationwide, will operate with at least 13 host churches and some support congregations, which will provide  supplemental food and volunteers as needed. Twelve host churches signed the FPSCC agreement last week, and another is expected to join shortly, Haradon said.

Under the program’s format, each host church agrees to house a maximum of 14 people in families with children who find themselves homeless. The host church will sign up for one week four times per year.

Using existing facilities, the congregations agree to provide overnight accommodations, breakfast, a take-out lunch, and dinner to the families, who have been screened for eligibility. During the day, families will be taken by van to a computer-equipped resource center, where they can shower, care for their preschool children, and get information on government programs and job assistance. School-aged children will attend their regular classes.

The resource center, which will serve residents in the Oxford, Avon Grove, Kennett, and Unionville-Chadds Ford school districts, is being transformed from a vacant convent that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (ABVM) Church in West Grove is renting to Family Promise for $1 a month. “It’s a wonderful thing that we’re able to do,” Pastor Scott D. Brockson said.

Bill Carl, FPSCC’s treasurer, estimated the annual budget at $165,000 and first-year capital costs at $70,000. About $20,000 of in-kind capital donations for a new furnace and some plumbing are being collected, he said.

To date, $126,000 has been raised, not counting the in-kind donations, he said. He added that the group is currently seeking funds or a donation of a 15-passenger van, which will be used to transport the families.

“We’re clearly on our way to getting this running,” said Carl.

Pat Bokovitz, director of the county's Department of Community Development, applauded the local Family Promise initiative. He said the effort is consistent with the county’s Decade to Doorways, a plan to end homelessness in the county within 10 years.

A poster features the names of the inaugural signers of the Family Promise of Southern Chester County agreement.

A poster features the names of the inaugural signers of the Family Promise of Southern Chester County agreement.

“They’ve done a great job in local fundraising,” Bokovitz said of the Family Promise team. “They’ve identified a need and have made real progress in addressing it.”

The county has been in communication with Family Promise organizers, he said. “We will continue to be involved,” Bokovitz said, adding that a fiscal partnership may be possible at some point.

One of the many Decade to Doorways initiatives is ConnectPoints, a toll-free hotline for anyone seeking emergency shelter or housing services in the county. The system cuts through bureaucracy by giving callers information about all available services and shelters, data that previously required myriad phone calls. Once it’s operational, Family Promise of Southern Chester County will be included among the ConnectPoints resources, Haradon said.

Underscoring the need for Family Promise, the four southernmost school districts in Chester County identified nearly 500 schoolchildren as homeless during the 2013-2014 school year, according to county data. In addition, no shelters for individuals or families exist in southern Chester County, and of the 235 shelter beds available countywide, only 34 accept families.

Haradon said FPSCC’s search for an executive director has been narrowed to several candidates. He said he expected that person to be hired soon so that the program can begin welcoming families sometime in the fall.

“I’m excited for Family Promise; this is so much more than a place to sleep,” Haradon said.

He said a core of trained, community volunteers who have passed background checks  would be assisting the families. Given the size of the network of volunteers, he said he expected many would have leads on jobs and housing.

During the signing meeting, Kate Uhler, the emergency assistance case manager for KACS, reinforced the need for the program’s launch. She told the group of volunteers that six area families with children are presently living in motels because no shelter space was available. “It puts urgency on this [initiative],” she said.

Haradon said the number of people who have worked so hard to make Family Promise happen repeatedly impressed him. “It has really brought people together,” he said, citing differences in backgrounds, culture, and religion. “It’s been amazing to watch.”

He said Family Promise of Southern Chester County is continuing to seek congregations as well as donations. If more than 13 host churches participate, the number of weeks per year could end up being fewer than four. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/familypromisescc or http://www.familypromisescc.org.

The host churches signed up so far are Unionville Presbyterian, Kennett Friends Meeting, Westminster Presbyterian, Willowdale Chapel, Cornerstone Presbyterian, Christian Life Center, Episcopal Church of the Advent, Assumption BVM, Oxford United Methodist, West Grove United Methodist, Sacred Heart Parish, and Vineyard at the Barn Church.

The support churches are St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, Avon Grove Church of the Nazarene, West Grove Friends, Presbyterian Church of Kennett Square, Church of the Open Door, Oxford Church of the Nazarene, Toughkenamon Presbyterian, St. Christopher’s Episcopal, Apostolic Church of Oxford, New Garden Friends, and Avondale Presbyterian.

A chart shows the participating congregations who have signed up for Family Promise of Southern Chester County.

A chart shows the participating congregations who have signed up for Family Promise of Southern Chester County.

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.



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