An encounter with a homeless pregnant teenager coupled with the words from a Christmas carol started the process that led Joe Reitz to bring Family Promise to Lawrence.
In 2006, three months after retiring from Kansas University’s School of Business, where he founded the International Center for Ethics in Business, Reitz became the Leo Center and Heartland Medical Clinic’s CEO.
“It wasn’t for lack of something to do in retirement,” Reitz says. “I love to golf, hike, read, have 11 grandchildren to enjoy and a new puppy to train, but I felt called to serve at the Leo Center.”
Serving came naturally to Reitz.
As well as raising his own family, he and his wife, Nancy, fostered infants and housed many young pregnant women who needed shelter. He’s served with Habitat for Humanity and his church.
“My parents’ example and my faith in Jesus inspired me to serve others,” he says.
At the Leo Center, Reitz became aware of the plight of homeless families.
“At any given time there can be well over 100 homeless children in Lawrence schools,” he says.
“We could provide food, medical care, counseling, some emergency financial help, but what families really needed was a safe place to stay. One day a homeless pregnant 19-year old asked: ‘Isn’t there a room for me and my child?’ I thought of the Christmas carol I sang as a child, “no room at the inn,” and knew I had to do something.”
After extensive research, Reitz discovered the national organization Family Promise.
“It’s a model with a successful history,” he says.
“Its mission isn’t just to house homeless families, it’s to transform people’s lives by helping them break generational cycles of poverty and homelessness and help them become productive citizens again. I also like the program’s cost effectiveness and extensive use of volunteers. The more I learned about the program, the more excited I became.”
He resigned from the Leo Center in November 2007, intending to establish Family Promise in Lawrence before the following year’s first snowfall. His main challenges were recruiting enough faith communities willing to host families and provide one week’s food and shelter, getting city approval and raising the necessary $60,000 funding.
While Bob and Katherine Dinsdale and Doug Stephens handled approvals, Reitz initiated dialogue with local churches and asked several donors to contribute $10,000 each.
“I was passionate about the need, could demonstrate results that the program works and knew I could get it done,” Reitz says.
Within a short time he had the necessary funds and a commitment from eight area churches.
Lawrence Family Promise opened Nov. 15, 2008. It’s gone from strength to strength and is now supported by 34 faith communities in Lawrence and Eudora, and more than 1,200 volunteers.
“Many volunteers tell us their own lives have been transformed through their interaction with families,” Reitz says.
“I’m humbled by the realization that any of the children I’ve met in the program could have been my grandchildren.”