Five years ago, ORIX USA’s Jeff Smith thought of homelessness the way many of us do-people living in parks and under bridges. That perception was shattered when he began volunteering with Family Promise of Collin County.
The non-profit-part of a national organization comprised of 187 affiliates in 42 states-partners with local churches to provide homeless families who have children with interim housing, meals and support services in an effort to help transition them to permanent housing.
After meeting some of the families, Jeff was immediately struck by how ordinary they seemed. “I always had this perception of what homeless families looked like and who they were,” Jeff says. “If you met these people, you’d have a hard time figuring out who is volunteering and who is part of the program because they’re just regular people who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances.”
That’s understandable, especially since reports have shown that anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of Americans are just one emergency away from poverty or homelessness. “Anyone can lose a job, suffer a serious illness or hit a major pothole of life and begin that spiral downward,” says Sheila Miller, executive director of Family Promise of Collin County. Once you hit bottom, it’s hard a hard climb up.”
Enter Family Promise of Collin County: Currently, the organization partners with 13 community churches-called host congregations-which volunteer to house families for a week at a time. Because of zoning laws, families can’t stay at one church longer than a week, so they rotate between facilities.
The church’s classrooms are converted into living spaces for each family and have capacity to typically hold up to 14 people-so roughly three or four families can take part in the program at any given time. Families stay overnight, while members of the church provide them with breakfast, lunch and a hot dinner throughout the week.
During the day, guests can visit the program’s Day Center, which is a parsonage donated by one of the host congregations that wasn’t being used. There, families can shower, wash clothes, tend to preschool children and conduct job searches. Classes like financial planning are also taught and teach participants how to set a budget and conserve their spending-topics that guests constantly say they wish they’d learned sooner.
The end goal? To help families transition into permanent housing within about 90 days. By partnering with landlords and apartment buildings, Family Promise of Collin County helps families become self-sufficient and works with them to find affordable housing.
“Family Promise is a great example of harnessing the community to meet a need without having to spend a lot of money on building new facilities to house people,” Jeff says.
And that’s one reason why Jeff became hooked on the organization after his family first volunteered to bring food for families and eat with them some five years ago. “My family was looking for something to do that wasn’t a one-shot deal,” Jeff says. “Family Promise gave us the opportunity to do something ongoing and the chance to have face-to-face interaction with families.”
Now a board member for the nonprofit, Jeff has also found another way to help out: Each church needs volunteers to stay overnight with the guests to ensure everything runs smoothly-a role fitting for ORIX USA’s Director of Communications and Marketing, a title he’s held for almost a year now. “I love that Jeff uses his gifts to serve a population in need of great role models like him,” Sheila says.
Whether you want to provide food, stay the night or simply share a meal with the families, Family Promise can undoubtedly use your contribution. Another option: Donate a car to a family through the God’s Wheels Vehicle Program. “Every volunteer and donor who donates a gas card, cooks a meal, provides for immediate needs or shares their lives with our guests families also share in that family’s success as they move back toward sustainable independent.”
Having grown up in a home that placed a high value on giving back to the community, Jeff finds comfort in being able to help people-and it’s a lesson he’s passed along to his two children, 18-year-old Mackenzie and 21-year old Spencer. Recently becoming empty nesters, Jeff and his wife, Jennifer, are enjoying seeing Dallas-everything from Dallas Symphony performances and outdoor concerts to Segway tours and dinner parties could be on the weekend lineup.
Lending a hand is clearly in Jeff’s DNA, and he was thrilled to discover that Family Promise recently applied for and received its first grant from the ORIX Foundation.
“It’s all about the golden rule and treating people the way you want to be treated and giving back when you have the ability to do so,” Jeff says. “Everything is temporary, so why not share it?”