Keeping a promise

From left, Director Ava O’Hollearn, President Julie Edwards, Vice President Linda Melcher and Americorps VISTA member Crystal DeBoer hold a banner Tuesday morning in front of a van donated by the Wyoming Episcopal Diocese at the First Baptist Church.

SHANNON BRODERICK/Boomerang photographer

A new nonprofit organization that hopes to fight homelessness is planning to begin operations next month.

Family Promise of Albany County recently hired an executive director and is in the midst of renovating a future day center with the hope of opening its doors to its first families in late March.

“That’s been our consistent goal ever since last summer,” said board member Jennifer Painter.

Family Promise is a nationwide program that already exists in about 40 states.

Through its model, local churches and civic groups provide temporary homes for up to four families at a time on a weekly rotating basis.

Volunteers from host congregations cook meals and spend time with families during the evenings, and then families attend school and work during the day while based out of a day center. A case manager coordinates services with existing agencies to help families with housing, job searches and other needs.

The program is intended for families with children under 18, and the goal is to help families transition into stability. Painter said the Albany County group could tentatively accommodate up to 14 people at a time.

Painter said 11 sites are currently part of the host rotation, and she’d like to recruit two more for a total of 13.

The day center will be located at United Presbyterian Church, 215 S. 11th. Renovations are soon to be underway to create office space for two staff members, a conference space, bathrooms and laundry facilities.

Grant money has funded the purchase of portable beds and bedding, and the group will travel using a donated 15-passenger van.

Executive director Ava O’Hollearn began work a couple weeks ago, joining new AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Crystal DeBoer.

O’Hollearn, a Casper native, owned a small business in Florida with her husband for more than 17 years. She recently decided to return to Wyoming and enter the non-profit world. DeBoer has a sociology degree from the University of Wyoming.

O’Hollearn said the strength of the model is that it keeps families together, giving them an address and phone number at the day center to use for applications. Meanwhile, volunteers at host sites provide friendship and role models.

“When families have their basic needs of food, shelter and transportation met, they can begin to feel secure,” she said. “This enables them to focus on their case management plan and achieve sustainable living.”

Family Promise volunteers have been working for about two years to get the operation off the ground. Painter said a Giving Tuesday campaign in late November gave them enough money that they felt comfortable hiring an executive director and settling on an opening date.

“That was the final big fundraising event that really pushed us into the territory where we felt like we had made it to a turning point,” she said.

Since the fall of 2016, Family Promise has been supported by a club at the Lab School called Force of Altruism.

Anna Gatlin, an eighth grader and a member of the group’s leadership team, said they’ve donated about $2,800 over the past couple years. The group runs a school store and has helped organize several community fundraisers.

Gatlin said students felt that supporting Family Promise was important because it’s still working to get up and running.

“In a couple years when we have (Family Promise) in Laramie, we can say we helped contribute to that,” she said.

Students will be involved with a Feb. 10 fundraising dinner at the Eppson Center called Trattoria Promessa. The evening includes Italian appetizers, wine, dinner, live music, silent auction and raffle. Tickets are sold out.

Painter said Family Promise has raised enough money to cover its first year of operation. Ongoing costs will stay low, she said, because of substantial volunteer input and the use of existing facilities around town.

“We’re in a very solid place financially, but we do need to continue building on that so we can continue our services,” she said.

She’s expecting to have families ready to participate when the organization begins operation next month.

“We have had families who have reached out to us, so we know that they’re there,” she said.

Mike Vercauteren, executive director of Interfaith-Good Samaritan, said he encounters families facing homelessness on a near-daily basis. In Laramie, homelessness could look like a single mother who runs into financial troubles and has trouble paying the rent.

“That type of situation is more common than you think,” he said.

Interfaith often supports families by helping them find lodging or paying for a hotel room.

“It’s something we do on a regular basis every week,” Vercauteren said.

He even had several families in mind that he would refer to Family Promise.

“They can’t get open fast enough, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Recent counts have found more than 100 homeless people living in Albany County, including more than 30 children. Some families receive shelter from local agencies, while others live in vehicles or in buildings without plumbing, heat or electricity.

Such counts don’t include people staying with relatives or friends, or for those paying to live in motels. Family Promise’s own research estimates that 50-100 children in Albany County lack stable housing at any given time.

Family Promise began in New Jersey in 1986. Today, more than 6,000 congregations and 160,000 volunteers are part of the effort. According to program statistics, 74 percent of participating families gain long-term housing after nine weeks.

Painter said it’s been exciting to watch momentum build as Family Promise inches nearer to its goals. At the same time, however, the real work has not yet begun.

“It is very exciting to think that we finally have a meaningful way to meet that need that can lead to a sustainable lifestyle for the families even beyond crisis help — that we’re leading them into a more stable situation,” she said.

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