by W.T. Branton
When you were a kid, you’d probably be excited if you were invited to a week-long stay with other families with a bounce house, snacks, and other kids to play with. One little girl who stayed at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in June had just such an experience, but she was most excited about something that you might not expect. She was overjoyed just to have a bed to sleep in.
When you hear the term “homeless,” what do you think of? Chances are that it calls to mind a certain harsh stereotype of some kind. But what about the mother or father of three that you work with, or the child who sits next to your son or daughter at school? Would those people ever come to mind? There are a large number of homeless families in our area who choose to be “invisible” in order to maintain their dignity and, moreover, to keep their families together. And, who could blame them? With over a thousand children in the St. Tammany school system identified as “homeless,” St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Mandeville has stepped up to participate in the Family Promise program for the fourth year in a row to welcome some of these families into their community like one of their own.
Family Promise isn’t a shelter, but a support network of services, from transportation to temporary living spaces, and individual case-workers. Host churches open their doors to families in need to give them a sense of stability and community support, not just as charity, but to build new foundations and help them get back on their feet. In June, St. Michael’s hosted three such families for a week and saw again what a huge difference just a little community support can make. Although each hosting event is slightly different, each one begins with an almost tangible sigh of relief from families in the midst of hardships as they’re welcomed into a truly safe space, and continues with the congregation making them feel at home with comforts that most of them haven’t felt anywhere else and most of us take for granted every day.
In St. Michael’s Parish Hall, the families, which are all pre-screened and interviewed by the Family Promise program, were given a partitioned space with beds and privacy to live and sleep in during their stay. The volunteer parishioners all pitched in a little something of their own to make their stay special. Bob brought puppies for the kids to play with, introducing the perfect four-legged icebreakers for the little ones as well as the adults. Tilly, Shirley, and Bobby prepared wonderful meals and Melanie cooked her famous potatoes that everyone always loves. Others offered labor, setting up the partitions and furniture, and cleaning up afterward. Isabelle acted as the overnight host during the week, seeing to the families’ needs as well as showing up some of the teenage boys with her skills on the ping pong table. Stacy, the head of the preschool, prepared painting and beading craft projects for the younger kids, and Alfonso was the go-to tech guy, setting up the media entertainment.
Some of the parishioners simply offered their time and company during the families’ stay, giving them what even the best social services facilities can’t, which is a feeling of community, inclusiveness, non-judgmental interaction, and some simple pleasant conversation. Those of us who have been in low spots can probably remember that sometimes the best thing someone can do for us is to just sit and talk, offering the one thing that costs them nothing, but means the world to someone in need—a little of their time, understanding, and attention. These are regular folks just like you and me, and even could be you or me someday for that matter.
You might think the little bit of time or effort you have to offer won’t accomplish much, or that it might not mean a lot to families like these. But, Pat Jenson, St. Michael’s host coordinator, and her husband Erik can tell you that it only takes a few days of sharing your basic comforts to see what a huge difference the smallest efforts can make. Just like you, all they really want is to keep their families together. Sometimes all it takes is helping to fill the basics needs for a short time to help get someone back on their feet, to build the bridge from the depth of poverty to the horizon of success. With the Family Promise program actively engaging and following up with their families to ensure their progress, hosting an event like St. Michael’s and other churches in St. Tammany Parish is less of what you might think of as charity and more active progress that really makes a difference for families just like ours by getting them back on their feet again.
St. Michael’s Episcopal will continue to host for the Family Promise program and what they need most is warm bodies to fill out the community environment. Anybody can volunteer their time to be there with them during their stay. Children and teenagers can help just by showing up to interact with others their own age. Parents and all adults can make a difference by simply offering their attention, conversation, their friendship, and sharing a meal. Instead of sharing a good story on social media, share that time with someone just like you who could use a friend and a helping hand, or a little girl or boy just like yours who would love more than anything to have a bed to sleep in tonight.