Managing Editor Elizabeth Herzing interviews Chris Kaul of Family Promise about its mission to build communities and strengthen lives.
Q. What is the history of Family Promise? How did it get started?
A. In 1981, Karen Olson, a marketing executive who developed promotional campaigns for consumer products, saw a homeless woman whom she’d seen over and over again on her way to work. She stopped to buy a sandwich for the woman. The stranger accepted but asked for something more—a moment of her time—to be heard, comforted, and to be considered as more than a mere statistic on a cold street corner. Emotionally charged by the incident, Olson and her two young sons began to visit New York regularly to hand out sandwiches to the homeless. Through her frequent interaction, she came to know some of the city’s homeless personally and began to understand the profound loss and disconnection they felt. Olson learned there were hundreds of homeless people, including families, in her home community of Union County, New Jersey. Convinced that others shared her concern and that together they could accomplish great things, she turned to the religious community in her hometown of Summit for help. Within ten months, eleven area congregations came forward to provide hospitality space within their buildings. The local YMCA agreed to provide showers and a day center for families. A car dealer discounted a van. On October 27, 1986, the first Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) opened. As word spread, ten more congregations formed a second network. Programs for transitional housing, child care, and family mentoring followed—all outgrowths of increased awareness and involvement. The success of the first networks led other congregations to develop similar programs. In 1988, National Interfaith Hospitality Network was formed. In 2003, the organization changed its name to Family Promise to reflect a broader range of programs and reaffirm its core commitment to helping families realize their own potential.
Q. Explain the mission of Family Promise, its core programs, and any special efforts for the 2014 holiday season.
A. One of every seven people in the United States lives in poverty. If you consider only children, that figure jumps to nearly one in four. Our mission is to help homeless and low income families achieve sustainable independence while addressing the factors that perpetuate poverty. Family Promise was founded on the belief that Americans are compassionate people who want to make a difference but may not know how or where to start. Family Promise helps by building bridges between people in need and people who want to help Interfaith Hospitality Network. Our Interfaith Hospitality Network of volunteers provides shelter, meals, and support services to homeless families. Each network program is a partnership mobilizing community resources: houses of worship for lodging, congregations for volunteers, social-service agencies for assessment and referrals, and existing facilities for day programs. Each affiliate includes ten to thirteen houses of worship and 800 to 1,000 volunteers. Host congregations provide overnight shelter, meals, and support services to three to five families for one week every two to three months. Each affiliate can serve about 175 homeless family members annually. Community Initiatives Many affiliates go on to do much more. Personal concern for the families they have come to know has inspired affiliates to create more than 800 new programs and partnerships to help solve problems that improve the quality of life of guests, speed their transition to independence, and increase the number of guests the affiliate can serve. These initiatives include the creation of permanent support housing, financial literacy, job training, and health-care services, plus parenting classes, child care, and children’s-enrichment programs. Family Mentoring As part of our initiative to prevent homelessness, volunteers are trained to advocate for at-risk families. Low income families face enormous stresses—and the pressure can severely disrupt family life. Mentors provide vital support as friends, advocates, and bridges to the community. The mentoring program seeks to help families maintain independence and attain greater economic stability, to nurture and support their children, to strengthen self-esteem of both parents and children, and to help families secure employment and job-training opportunities to help them achieve and maintain self-sufficiency. Just Neighbors The Just Neighbors poverty-awareness program provides an interactive, multimedia tool kit that enables participants to experience the frustrations of homeless and low-income families and learn how to help. Developed through Ford Foundation funding, Just Neighbors has been used by congregations, universities, civic groups, and national organizations as a creative and dynamic tool to educate, inspire, and empower communities to help make a difference. Voices Uniting Every year, Family Promise affiliates provide countless services to thousands of children and parents in emergency situations. But for families to rise above cyclical poverty, further action is required.
Family Promise is committed to addressing programs and policies that impact low-income families daily. Voices Uniting mobilizes and supports IHN clergy, volunteers, and former guests as advocates for public policies that alleviate poverty and promote economic stability. Collectively raising our voices in the public-policy arena helps create substantial and lasting changes. Holidays The holidays are always a special time for affiliates. Making our programs feel like home for our families seems even more important at the time of year when we all take time to give thanks for being together. Over the holidays, there are celebratory dinners, and families are often adopted by loving community members or groups who provide gifts. Affiliates might treat their families to a stay in a hotel, a much-welcomed retreat that includes gift cards, trees, and meal cards to enjoy a restful holiday week. Many community agencies work with Family Promise affiliates on charitable initiatives. Sports teams hold Family Promise nights where families are invited to attend games free. Companies like Learning Express and Toys “R” Us donate high-quality toys and present guests with coupons for shopping sprees. The food and gifts are wonderful, but perhaps most important are the gifts of peace and love that volunteers share so freely with families at such a challenging time in their lives. The holidays embody what Family Promise means to guests and volunteers alike.
Q. What are some success stories from the work of Family Promise?
A. One night. That’s all it took. In a matter of hours, Hope Johnson knew she and her daughter were going to be all right. The young mother had been in tears after arriving at Family Promise, terrified at being homeless and fearful of how the experience would affect her eighteen-month-old daughter, Olivia. Hope’s world broke apart when she lost her eyesight temporarily due to an infection. She was out of work and out of money, and breaking up with an abusive partner left her stranded. When her landlord evicted her for nonpayment of rent, she had nowhere to go. Panicked, she called a social worker who had made home visits. The woman brought her to Family Promise. “I felt comfortable almost immediately,” Johnson said. “Everyone sat down with me and tried to make feel welcome. They gave me hope instantly.” Five months later, she and her daughter moved into their own home. Today, Hope Johnson, twenty-six, is a retail sales rep for Verizon with a promising career and a stable home life. Olivia, now five, “has everything she needs, and then some,” her mother says. Danielle Carter never liked asking for help. “I was so used to people not caring and being self-absorbed,” she says. But that changed when she and her year-old son found themselves homeless. Carter was married, working at a supermarket part time and in her first semester at a community college when her husband lost his job. Their relationship, already troubled, did not survive the crisis. Although her ex helped, their combined resources fell short. Rather than wait to be evicted, Carter notified her landlord that she would be leaving. When she contacted Family Promise, “their response was immediate,” Carter said. “I was so thankful. I’d been desperate.” Family Promise offered Carter a transitional apartment, where she and her son lived for two years. She restructured her life, moving from a dead-end job into a promising career.
Written by Chris Kaul