Some of Katherine Dinsdale’s most rewarding moments as a volunteer for Family Promise of Lawrence have been spent on the floor. When you’re involved in an organization that provides support and shelter for families experiencing homelessness, you seem to end up on the floor a lot, reading a book to preschoolers, playing games with teens or rubbing the back of a baby who is having trouble falling asleep.
Dinsdale remembers the night she received an urgent call to stay with some kids in the organization’s transitional housing program while their mother dealt with an emergency. Because Dinsdale purposely knits her life together with Family Promise guests, building friendships that extend beyond the confines of her volunteer job description, she was over in a flash, helping the children through the crisis. She ended up on the floor that night, too.
“The kids were asleep in a heap around me like puppies,” she recalls. “I was lying on the floor, surrounded by sleeping children, like I have done so many times in my own home, and your heart breaks. You want everything to be OK, and there is nothing you can do but love them and encourage them.”
For Dinsdale, the magic of Family Promise lies in its emphasis on building friendships between families in crisis and community volunteers.
“There is enormous power in relationships,” she says. “To have somebody believe in you and encourage you is worth so much more than cash. People come in and their eyes are downcast and they can hardly have a conversation. Then they build some relationships, and you love their kids and eat some meals together and laugh together, and all of a sudden, you both are feeling better.”
It’s no wonder Becky Peters, program and guest coordinator for Family Promise, nominated Dinsdale for the United Way Roger Hill Volunteer Center’s Wallace Galluzzi Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award. “She’s such a quiet hero as a volunteer,” Peters says.
A longtime advocate for the homeless in Lawrence, Dinsdale helped get Family Promise started nearly five years ago. As a former board member for The Salvation Army and president of the Community Commission on Homelessness, Dinsdale was acutely aware of the challenges homeless families faced in Douglas County.
“Families were really struggling, putting up with abuse, living at the lake, couch surfing,” she recalls, because, at the time, there wasn’t an emergency shelter in Lawrence that could accommodate their special needs.
So she and her husband, Bob Dinsdale, connected with Joe Reitz, a retired Kansas University professor who was directing the LEO Center, to see whether they could come up with a solution. They liked the model of Family Promise, a nonsectarian national organization through which local affiliates work within their faith community to provide shelter and support for homeless families.
Through Family Promise of Lawrence, 38 congregations, which range from numerous Christian churches to the Lawrence Jewish Community Center and the Islamic Center of Lawrence, work together to provide up to four families at a time with overnight shelter in local church buildings.
In 2013, Family Promise was able to shelter 63 individuals from 17 families, a fraction of the number of families who appealed to them for help. This month alone, 54 families contacted Family Promise in need of shelter.
“We utilize 1,200 volunteers in the community, and they are the heartbeat of this organization; it does not work without them,” Peters says. “We need ongoing volunteers as overnight and evening hosts at churches. It’s a great way for families to volunteer together. You can bring your kids along and hang out with other families.”
“It’s such a beautiful life, to be able to walk with people and help,” Dinsdale says, explaining how being involved with Family Promise has been as transformative for her as it has been for the guests. “This is the best life I can imagine because you get to be a part of families’ lives who are capable, but have never had a chance.”
To find out about the many volunteer opportunities at Family Promise, contact Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lawrencefamilypromise.org.