St_Frances_Cabrini_West_BenSt. Frances Cabrini Parish, West Bend, is one of nine Washington County churches that opens its doors to the homeless through the Family Promise program. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)To anyone else, big, black garbage bags are just that – something people fill with discarded cheese slice wrappers and microwavable meal containers to be tossed into a Dumpster and hauled away. But for a young and homeless Washington County couple and their two children, big, black plastic garbage bags contained everything they owned.

Packing their belongings into bags to be put into a trailer and transported to the next church they would call “home” for a week was far from ideal, but they weren’t on the streets, they had home-cooked meals, resources for job and apartment searching, transportation, the support of volunteers and a chance to get back on their feet while staying together as a family.

That’s the aim of Family Promise of Washington County, to provide emergency shelter, case management and support to homeless families through the help of a case manager, many volunteers and an Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) – congregations that provide overnight lodging, meals and hospitality for one week at a time on a continuous rotation throughout the year.

The young mother said she feels the family is lucky to have the program because they’d “really be in trouble” without it.

“I would say we’d be living in our car, but we took that to the junkyard, so we don’t even have that,” she said, explaining that they moved to Wisconsin to escape an abusive situation, and that they are $12,000 in debt from her husband’s college loans. “We’d probably be in a very bad way right now, so, especially with how cold it is.”

Program began locally in 2009

Modeled after the 25-year-old national program, Family Promise of Washington County became the 156th affiliate, the fifth network in the state of Wisconsin and the first program of its kind in Washington County when it was incorporated in August 2009.

Kathleen Christenson, executive director of Family Promise, told your Catholic Herald early in February that the program, which helped 10 families since it opened its doors five months ago, originated with a woman who felt the community needed to do more to help its homeless families. Christenson said the shortage of services for families in the county with a population of 130,681 was a topic that came up during quarterly discussions held by a group of clergy and in meetings held by the Continuum of Care, a group of the community’s leaders that meet and also discuss the county’s homelessness issue.

“And in 2009, according to our records, we turned 34 families away, and those are the families that we knew of, not to mention the families that didn’t come to us because they weren’t aware of our services, so they quickly realized we needed to put something together. …” Christenson said of phone calls tracked through the Housing Crisis Hotline.

St.FrancesCabrini2Volunteers prepare the shelter area of St. Frances Cabrini Church, West Bend, in mid-December. The church is one of nine Washington County churches that provide housing and meals to needy residents. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)They recruited congregations, formed a board of 14 members, incorporated the program as a 501c3, raised funds and eventually hired a part-time case manager, transportation drivers and Christenson as executive director.

Within 10 days of its Sept. 27, 2010, opening, the program was at its capacity of three to four families or a total of 14 individuals.

“Most congregations have the space to host three to four families; anything beyond that sort of pushes them outside of their capabilities,” Christenson said of the nine congregations that have the space to be host sites, including St. Mary and St. Frances Cabrini in West Bend. Other congregations that don’t have the space but have interested volunteers or resources to share sign on as support sites.

Christenson told your Catholic Herald early in February that seven additional churches have expressed sincere interest in joining the mission; she hopes to reach 13, meaning each congregation will host families about four times each year.

Volunteers need ‘heart for the mission’

“The biggest thing is (parishes) have to have the heart for the mission … having the right people with their hearts in the right place and a commitment to Family Promise in serving homeless families,” Christenson said, explaining that a volunteer coordinator and about 50 volunteers are needed at each host site.

The most successful congregations are those where the lay people take charge of the operation, according to Christenson.

“When the spirit comes from that level, that’s generally when we see the most success, because they’re the ones that go out and advocate for the program, they’re the ones that go out, recruit the volunteers and they’re the ones that push all the buttons that need to be pushed in order for the congregation to become a host site,” Christenson said.

Once they have the heart, congregations like St. Mary in West Bend can open their doors to the Family Promise Mission.

Family Promise information

To support Family Promise financially, send check to:
Family Promise of Washington County
P.O. Box 438
Slinger, 53086

Family promise can use donations of sheets, blankets, pillows, regular household cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products are also needed.

For more information about becoming a host or support site for Family Promise of Washington County, contact Kathleen Christenson at (262) 644-8900.

For more information about the program and how you can help, visit the Web site.

Jean Gorman, the volunteer coordinator at St. Mary, filled almost every volunteer slot when she put out a sign-up sheet after a Sunday Mass. The volunteers needed to help with setup, takedown, cooking meals, staying overnight and to fill in.

Gorman said St. Mary’s volunteers include an elderly couple that made chili and set the table elegantly for the guests one night.

“It was really nice….” she said from her seat at the table in the hospitality room where guests can watch TV, read books, play games or relax. “They did a really nice job, and we were a little concerned about them because they had never done it before and weren’t sure how, but (a) great couple and we’re meeting lots of people (through Family Promise).”

‘Sheet City’ in church’s basement

The volunteers and guests joke about St. Mary’s “Sheet City,” the guests’ rooms and cots in the basement that are sectioned off by cotton sheets hanging from brackets in the ceiling. The sheets might not keep out a baby’s cries in the middle of the night like the room at St. Frances Cabrini where the young family slept away from the other families that had dividers separating them in a main room, but it provides shelter to guests when they arrive at about 5:30 p.m. – in time for a warm, home-cooked meal, and volunteer help with children.

One St. Mary volunteer rocked a baby girl back and forth while her parents filled their plates with a selection of buns, hot ham, potatoes, corn and more. One of the program guests pitched in to help care for a young man’s crying children after he returned from work that day.

“Just fix your own plate,” she told him.

The volunteers have been helpful to the young couple with their two children who often wake up crying in the middle of the night.

“The one night I had a breakdown and one of the church people took the baby from me and let me get a couple hours of sleep … they can be very, very, very helpful, so I’m really appreciative of that,” the young mother said.

“They’re only here a week, but the families grow on you,” said Gorman, whose involvement in the St. Vincent de Paul Society has helped her connect some families to clothing items they may need, “and you wonder what’s going on with them, you’re curious, but we don’t always find out.”

Guests get up at about 6:15 a.m. and head to work, school or to the program’s Day Center located in Slinger, where the adults can do laundry, shower, take care of general personal hygiene, use the Internet to search for jobs and do “what they need to do to get themselves back on their feet,” Christenson said, adding that while Family Promise can’t fix everything, it can add tools to the families’ success kits and life journeys.

Provides home base in Washington County

“It’s nice to have the home base in the heart of Washington County, but then it does require quite a bit of transportation to get back to West Bend for the resources and to get out there in the community for job search and things like that.” Christenson said.

“Uprooting” is what the young mother said is hardest for the young family that stayed at four churches since they entered the program Dec. 1 through Dec. 20, 2010.

“So, it’s hard from that perspective,” said the father, who earns around $395 a month to job search through the required Wisconsin Works (W-2) program, “otherwise everybody is really nice, very helpful, you get as much food as you could possibly want, snacks, dessert – very nice hospitality.”

The way the family has kept busy with Day Center chores and also job searching or working toward its goals is why he said it is beneficial.

“So you are looking for work, you’re not just sitting on your butt – that’s why it’s a great program,” he said. “It helps you get back on your feet; it forces you to get back on your feet.”

The majority of contributions and funding – to purchase supplies and support the more than $100,000 operating budget that funds Christenson’s position, four part-time staff and the transportation – come from the county’s individuals, congregations, foundations, civic organizations, businesses and two special events rather than government grants. Two West Bend hotels – the Hampton Inn & Suites and AmericInn Motel – even donated rooms for the families during Christmas and New Year’s.

“We wouldn’t be able to do it without our congregations, and for everybody to be able to set aside their personal agendas and their personal, faith-based missions, to come together for one universal mission of providing resources and services to empower homeless families,” Christenson said. “To come together for that one mission is, to me, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of.”

Program offers surrogate family

Fr. Jeffrey Haines, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish, said the program is unique in what it offers.

“It’s not just providing a building or a space, it’s providing people who have been through a traumatic experience of losing a house, or being shuffled from place to place with relatives or whatever and to find a warm and welcoming place that is kind of a surrogate family to them…” he said. “And in the meantime, I think, the community itself is enriched by knowing the families and coming to share in their life and help them find hope in the joy that comes from that.”

Big, black garbage bags hold more than the family’s belongings while they’re guests in the Family Promise program – they hold another chance at building a life and doing it together.