Family Promise offers hope for the homeless in Blount

She is the woman pushing a baby in a shopping cart at midnight in a store that is open 24 hours. He is the young boy who came hungry this morning to your child’s school. She is sleeping in the car that is parked in the lot after all the other cars are tucked safely in their garages.

These are the faces of the homeless or transient in Blount County, and volunteers are working hard to bring a support network to this portion of the population.

It is a part of the Blount County population that many in the community do not know exists.

“I realized there was something that was missing in Blount County,” said Ann Drake, Blount County Family Promise Day Center chair. She said she became aware of the Family Promise program, and the homelessness in the community when a family she knew was split apart. The mother went to Knoxville to get the resources she needs while her children stayed in Maryville with a relative in order to stay in school. They were able to be together only on the weekends.

“I see the toll it takes on the children,” Drake said.

Drake and other volunteers attended a meeting recently at St. John United Methodist Church to hear about the importance of the program from Mike Harrell, a graduate of the Knox County Family Promise program.

“Family Promise made a difference in my life,” Harrell said in a telephone interview. He said because of Family Promise, he and his handicapped daughter got to stay together. His daughter, who was 17-years-old at the time, became disabled when she suffered a stroke as a toddler and then later developed a seizure disorder. As a result, she suffers from impairment on the right side of her body, a speech impediment and a learning disorder. Due to her handicap and seizures, Harrell’s daughter is unable to stay alone.

According to Jeanna Stewart, an avid supporter and volunteer of the Family Promise program, the support network was brought to the attention of community members during a meeting of the Blount County Ecumenical Action Council last spring. Stewart said representatives of the Family Promise of Knoxville came to the BCEAC meeting and shared success stories and highlighted the program’s accomplishments.

“After that, it was heavy on my heart, and I wanted to find out more about this fantastic program,” Stewart said. She and other volunteers toured the Family Promise of Knox County day center and met staff members, volunteers and families in the program. She said they were then put in contact with representatives from the non-denominational national program.

Staff from the national program performed a needs assessment and researched available resources in Blount County. Stewart said the program determined that the community has a need for the program and could successfully support it.

After the assessment, representatives from the national program came for a question-and-answer meeting.

“There was a great response to that first meeting,” Stewart said. She said more than 70 people from local churches, schools and social service agencies attended the meeting. Since then, monthly meetings have been held to get the Family Promise of Blount County off the ground.

Stewart said because there are hundreds of successful Family Promise programs in the country, volunteers have a model for what the program needs. She outlined several necessary components and steps that are being taken so that the program can get started by the end of the year.

“This is truly a collaborative effort among the community,” Stewart said.

A primary component of the Family Promise program is a day center, Stewart said. The day center will not only house the director of the program, but it will also be the location where program participants can learn the life skills they need to become successful in the community.

According to Drake, they are looking for an available site for the day center. The perfect location will have at least 1,800 square-feet and room for a director’s office and designated areas for participants to learn computer skills and take parenting courses.

Another important aspect of the program is the host congregations that provide overnight accommodations for program participants. Each family in the program stays at the host church for one week at a time. According to Stewart, at least eight churches have committed to becoming host congregations and several others have agreed to be support churches.

A 15-passenger van has been donated to Family Promise of Blount County to meet the transportation needs of the program. According to Stewart, family members in the program are transported every morning to their place of employment, school or to the day center.

A huge aspect of running a successful Family Promise program is the fundraising and financial portion. The national program suggests that one-third of the budget needs to be in place before the program can start serving participants. Stewart said the non-profit status paperwork has been submitted to the Internal Revenue Service. If people are inspired to donate to the organization before the paperwork is complete, Stewart said they could make a tax-deductible contribution to Good Neighbors and indicate that it is for Family Promise.

“The program provides security, friendship and fellowship,” Harrell said. “You may be at the bottom rung on the ladder, but people don’t give up on you.” He said that he is still in contact with several volunteers and staff members he met while he was in the program. He also said he continues to use the resource handbook he was given in the program. He is getting the help that he and his daughter need to cope with her disability.

For more information about volunteering or contributing to Family Promise of Blount County, contact Jeanna Stewart at 865-681-5420 or jeannastewart@gmail.com.

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