Five years later, organization still keeping its ‘promise’

Brandy Yohe helps her son Schylur Oakes, 8, button his shirt while they ready themselves at Family Promise's Day Center to go to a prepared dinner at First United Methodist Church, 946 Vermont St., on a recent day. Yohe and her three children are among several homeless families whom have sought help through Family Promise, which pairs families with local churches for shelter, food and counseling. On Yohe's lap is her 1-year-old daughter Legacy Oakes.

Brandy Yohe has hope. You can tell by her attitude, her energy, the way she smiles and makes eye contact with you when she talks.

This wasn’t always the case. Just a few weeks ago, the 23-year-old was homeless and unsure where her life was headed. And it wasn’t just herself she had to worry about. She had three other mouths to feed, ranging in age from 1 to 8.

Yohe then enrolled in Family Promise, a local nonprofit that enlists volunteers and churches to feed, house and otherwise support homeless families. In its five years of existence, Family Promise has not only transformed the lives of countless families like Yohe’s, but also those of its volunteers, helping them see poverty and homelessness in a new light. Many of Family Promise’s former guests (more than 80 percent) now volunteer for the program.

“It’s actually exceeded my expectations,” said Joe Reitz, founder of the Lawrence chapter of Family Promise, which has graduated more than 400 families into permanent housing over the past five years. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever been involved with in my life.”

Bryce Fuller, 6, helps Family Promise volunteer Sula Teller chop peppers for a recent dinner in the kitchen of First United Methodist Church, 946 Vermont St.

Reitz, a former Kansas University business professor, wasn’t aware family homelessness was a problem in Lawrence until he started running a local social-services facility and saw the strains poverty put on residents.

That’s when he learned about Family Promise, a national organization that had a track record of getting families off the streets by using something many churches have but usually don’t need during the week: space. Also, those congregations often have an abundance of generous people willing their donate their time for good causes.

Family Promise was founded in the early 1980s by Karen Olson, a marketing executive in New Jersey who wanted to help homeless families not only meet their basic human needs but overcome their sense of loss and disconnect from the community. Family Promise, which now has roughly 160,000 volunteers across about 200 chapters in 41 states, also is celebrating a milestone in 2013, marking its 25th anniversary with a gathering in Atlanta next month. Olson, who still runs the nonprofit, plans to visit Lawrence in October.

It works if you work it

Family Promise’s first guests in Lawrence were a single mom and her daughter, who spent the night at First Christian Church. With that, the group’s promise was on its way to being met.

Disabled Mississippi native Joseph Williams and his granddaughter were living in a homeless shelter when he learned about the organization. Out of options, they entered the program “three days before Valentine’s Day” in 2010.

Family Promise “did a whole lot for me,” said the 56-year-old Williams, who got his high school diploma while in the program and now lives on his own. “If you follow the rules of it, the help is there.”

He has since adopted his granddaughter, and now gives back to the nonprofit by driving guests around in its van.

The organization doesn’t just feed and house families; it provides them with financial counseling, employment support, case management and parenting skills. In September, it also began offering temporary housing, in which private property owners give families low, subsidized rates to allow them to build up their rental history.

“Our aim is self-sufficiency,” said Dana Ortiz, executive director of Family Promise of Lawrence. “But it doesn’t work for everybody. This is a pretty rigorous program.”

Of the 17 families that entered the program in 2012, seven graduated to permanent housing, six went on to temporary housing and four moved into transitional housing. Nationwide, 80 percent of the families helped by the organization eventually find their own place to live.

The program operates exclusively on grants and donations. In 2012, Family Promise of Lawrence brought in nearly $1 million in contributions from the community. Thirteen churches rotate week to week hosting the families, while another 22 offer their support; the congregations cover a variety of faiths, from Christian to Jewish to Muslim. Katherine Dinsdale, who helped Reitz start the local chapter, says: “I’m just thankful to the more than 1,000 people in Lawrence who have volunteered throughout the years.”

Dana Ortiz, executive director of Family Promise of Lawrence, talks with Bryce Fuller, 6, on a recent day at the Family Promise Day Center.

Regardless of Family Promise’s success, the need for its services have not subsided. Last year, Ortiz took 512 phone calls from people inquiring about Family Promise, which can only serve up to four families and 15 guests at a time.

Orderly chaos

On a recent afternoon at the Family Promise Day Center, kids ran from room to room like planes twirling in an air show. Two boys fought over a toy; another played a computer game. Yohe had just finished preparing her son, Schylur Oakes, for a singing contest he had that evening; his hair was gelled up in a fohawk, his outfit spiffy. She bundled her 1-year-old daughter, Legacy Oakes, up in a puffy pink coat.

“I was in a rough spot,” Yohe said of her situation before joining Family Promise. She described an environment unfit for kids, or, for that matter, adults: several families crammed together under one roof in a small, disorderly home.

Now, after just a few weeks at Family Promise, her partner, Levi Oakes, had landed a job at a call center, and she was optimistic about her own prospects for finding part-time work. She had taken a pre-test for the GED and expected to have the degree soon.

“I’m hopeful and excited, about taking steps forward, having chances to grow,” Yohe said, rocking her baby. “My kids are happier. I’m happier. I’m getting a lot of stuff done now that I have help. It gives me the fuel to do the stuff I need to do to get a better life for my kids and myself.”

When asked how he likes Family Promise, 8-year-old Schylur didn’t say a word. Instead, he gave a thumbs up — and smiled.