As I walked up to the front door of the former Our Lady of Charity (OLC) convent in Brookhaven on a pretty summer day last week, I couldn’t help but admire the flowers, the greenery and the overall peacefully calm surroundings. Lorie Ackerman, director of Family Promise of Delaware County, swang open the door and immediately and enthusiastically started telling me about Family Promise, currently located on the grounds of OLC at 245 Upland Road.
“It’s a great location,” Lorie offered when she noticed me admiring the Blessed Mother garden on the way inside. “There’s a nice playground out back and a lot of ground to run around. Most of the kids who come here barely notice that it’s actually a shelter.
“Other than Wesley House and The Family Management Center in Chester, we are the only shelter system in place for families who are homeless in Delco,” Lorie told me. “The Mother’s Home in Darby is a temporary shelter for mothers and their newborns, but the other shelters like CityTeam, Salvation Army and Life Center serve individuals, not full families. Family Promise serves as an alternative to the traditional shelter system, keeping families together until a housing solution can be found.”
Family Promise not only facilitates temporary shelter for families who find themselves homeless, but it strives to resolve the families’ homelessness by achieving stable income, housing and childcare by working hand-in-hand with other agencies and resources in the community.
Although Family Promise is based at the Brookhaven location, most of its day-to-day operations take place across the county. The Delaware County Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), a program of Family Promise, operates in churches all over Delaware County. Congregations volunteer to provide shelter and family style dinners for homeless children and their families for one week several times a year.
Here’s how it works: Families in need are referred to Family Promise by Community Action Agency of Delaware County (CAADC). From the Family Promise building, families are transported daily to local churches, which provide overnight accommodations. They spend one week at a time at each church and then switch churches on Sunday. Each morning, the Family Promise network van transports the families from their host church back to Family Promise’s day center in Brookhaven.
The day center is open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Families are able to use the center at OLC for storage of personal items, shower facilities and to work with Lorie and a family advocate guide to navigate resources to secure housing, jobs, life skills and child care.
“We go by the old, ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’ philosophy. We try to teach our families how to support themselves and help themselves, rather than just doing for them,” Lorie stressed. “We don’t micro-manage our families. Most families who come to us are self-motivated. They don’t want to be here. They are just in a temporary bad spot and need to find their way back to self-sufficiency.”
Come daytime, some adult family members will go off to their jobs and children will get transported to schools, camps and daycare. They can also shower at the day center if they did not have a shower opportunity at the church where they are staying. At about 5:30 p.m., the van will pick up the families and bring them back to the church.
“Family Promise, in essence, is returning to medieval times when people sought sanctuary within the church’s walls,” Lorie smiled. “Family Promise is based here at Our Lady of Charity when people initially come to us and we bring them to area churches where they ‘seek sanctuary.’”
At each church, volunteers from the congregation will provide dinner, which can be as simple as hotdogs or sandwiches or more elaborate like a traditional sit-down of spaghetti and meatballs or a casserole potluck spread. Following the meals, church congregations will usually provide a movie, a craft or some other activity for the families. Both after-dinner entertainment and activities and the meals are at the discretion and choice of each congregation. Around 9 or 10, it’s lights out. In the morning, the van will pick up the families.
The following day at dinner time, the routine repeats and goes on in succession for a full week, Sunday to Sunday, and then it is the next church’s turn. No more than four families and up to 14 people will be sent to a church at any given time and, Lorie said, most times it isn’t a full 14. Typically, about four to six of those needing a place to lay their weary heads are adults and the rest are children.
“Nothing has to be impressive or elaborate for a church to participate,” Lorie stressed. “Meals can be easy and kid-friendly like tacos or mac-n-cheese. Churches sometimes supply a breakfast in the morning, but breakfast isn’t mandatory because families can eat when they come back to the day center.”
Lorie said donations from Wawa and Starbucks really help in that department. She explained that although the churches don’t have to offer breakfast, almost every one of them does, and they also supply lunch foods and brown bags so that families can pack lunches for their day.
Hosting churches are not responsible to watch the children. The parents or grandparents there are responsible. However, many volunteers enjoy playing games and having fun with the children, which gives their adult caregivers a little break.
Families usually remain in the program for about 12 to 15 weeks. Churches are asked to supply linens, but Family Promise brings air mattresses and pillows. Family Promise brings the beds on Sunday and picks them up the following Sunday when the church’s hosting time period ends.
Here comes the dilemma … Lorie told me that currently there are 10 churches in Delaware County that are participating, with each church promising four weeks a year to serve as host. In order to operate at optimal potential, the IHN needs 13 churches. Because of the shortage, IHN of Delaware County must close for 10 weeks each year. It closed for five weeks around Easter time and it will close for five weeks beginning in August. More churches are needed to serve as hosts so that IHN can remain open and operating year-round.
To participate, the church doesn’t need a huge amount of room. Any space can be used — offices, hallways, gyms. Only two church volunteers are needed to stay overnight with the guests, although there can be more if desired.
Currently, these are the Delaware County churches that participate: Church of Christ, Folsom; Christ Church Episcopal, Ridley Park; St. Daniel’s United Methodist, Chester; St. Luke Community Christian Church, Chester; St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church, Upper Providence; Olivet Presbyterian Church, Prospect Park; Swarthmore Presbyterian Church, Swarthmore; Trinity Episcopal Church, Swarthmore; Unitarian Universalist Church of Delco, Media; and Union United Methodist Church, Havertown.
“One of the nicest things for volunteers is how they can help homeless families directly and see the difference they can make,” Lorie shared. “The nice thing for congregations is that we bring the outreach right to them. They don’t have to leave their churches to practice charity and love and helping their brothers and sisters in need.”
If a church congregation cannot volunteer for one reason or the other, they can sign on to be a “support church” and team up with the hosting church. A support church will help with meals, donations and volunteer hours.
Lorie told me that families are the largest growing segment of the homeless population, about 40 percent, and that 12 percent of families in our country are only two paychecks away from becoming homeless. That is one in nine adults and one in four children. She said that because Family Promise is such a small program, it has a huge success rate of about 89 percent with getting children and their families into permanent housing.
Lorie said that she sees a lot of CNA health aides as Family Promise guests. Their clients die or go into nursing homes and they become suddenly jobless and without income, which can eventually, and quickly, lead to losing housing.
“We not only help them and their families with temporary housing, but we work to find them full-time positions so that they can afford housing,” Lorie said. “This is the more usual type of homelessness that we deal with, families who have fallen on tough times, rather than the chronically homeless. We are mostly here to help families who just need a hand up when unforeseen circumstances have set them back.
“We try our best to find them stable transitional housing, along with hooking them up with a social services agency who will work on getting them permanent housing. We are connected to many other resources in the community and will help our families navigate what’s out there to help them help themselves.”
Lorie stated that Family Promise keeps in contact with the families for about a year after working with them, just to be sure things are going smoothly and the family members are all back on their feet and their housing is working out.
The Delaware County IHN is lucky enough to have over 500 volunteers, but more are always needed.
“Members of the churches in IHN tell us all the time that they feel they are answering God’s call to help their neighbors,” Lorie said.
Lorie grew up in Brookhaven and made her sacraments at Our Lady of Charity Church. The Family Promise director is a graduate of Sun Valley, Class of 1989, and received a degree in psychology from West Chester University. She worked in a reform school for boys and then in the Drug and Alcohol Rehab program at Community Hospital. She’s been at the helm of Family Promise for seven years. Living in Marcus Hook with her daughter, Brieann, 10, Lorie is passionate and committed to Family Promise’s purpose and mission. As a mother herself, she realizes the vital importance of keeping the family together.
“I wasn’t looking for a job when I came here,” Lorie admitted honestly. “I truly believe that I was led here to make a difference in others’ lives.”
The nonprofit Family Promise receives one-fifth of its funding from the county and the other four-fifths from grants and private, charitable donations. Administrative costs account for only 6 percent of budget. Family Promise has an active board of six, and new, enthusiastic board members are always needed, Lorie told me.
In addition to volunteering, those in the community can help Family Promise by shopping at its thrift store, which will reopen on Aug. 12. The shop, housed in the basement of the Family Promise building at OLC, will be open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the first Saturday and Sunday of every month. Many of the donations come through a partnership with Brandywine Youth Club and their pop-up consignment sales.
“We have quality merchandise at rock bottom prices,” Lorie exclaimed proudly. “You wouldn’t believe the good stuff you can find there!”
People can also help out the guests at Family Promise by the adopt-a-child and adopt-a-family program during the holidays.
The charity’s largest fundraiser of the year is coming up on Saturday, Aug. 12, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Family Promise will hold its second annual Food Truck Fest & Fun Fair on the grounds of OLC in Brookhaven and feature inflatables for the children, food, a flea market and more. Everyone is invited to attend. Radio station 101.1 More FM will be broadcasting live from the event. The rain date will be Sat., Aug. 19, same time. Vendors are needed to sell crafts, food, flea market items and other goods. All proceeds will benefit homeless families in Delaware County.
“When I see families a year or two after they leave our program and they’re really doing well, that is so rewarding,” Lorie reflected after giving me a tour of the building. “Sometimes, family members will come back here after their lives get more stable and they want to volunteer to pay the kindness forward. When that happens, it is way more than just rewarding — that is what Family Promise is all about.”
For more information on Family Promise and the IHN, to volunteer, to find out how to be a hosting church or to help out in any way or to be a vendor at the upcoming Food Truck-A-Thon event, contact Lorie Ackerman at 610-803-8580 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Interested people can also “like” Delco Family Promise or Delco IHN on Facebook or visit dcihn.org.