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Bath church volunteers help county council member aid homeless

Posted: February 28, 2018

by Jacqueline Mitchell

Jeff Wilhite, a Summit County Council member representing District 4 (Bath and West Akron), didn’t know much about Family Promise of Summit County before a friend notified him that the organization’s executive director was leaving in 2013.

However, as he learned more about the Akron-based nonprofit organization, one of many branches of Family Promise throughout the country that provides services and shelter to homeless families, “I absolutely fell in love with the program and its mission,” he said.

Given his knowledge of the area as a third-generation Akron resident and his background as the city’s deputy mayor for administration, among many other community involvements, Wilhite said he felt he could make a difference at the organization. He took on the role of executive director and is faced with the challenge of finding a new home, since the program outgrew its first (a former parsonage with little privacy and scarce amenities), and the pressing need to raise awareness and funding.

Family Promise’s mission is to help homeless families get back into sustainable housing.

“We are the only emergency homeless shelter program in Summit County that keeps the whole family together,” Wilhite said. “In some of the other shelters, they will not take adolescent boys into the program. We don’t define the family, but we keep the family together, regardless of its structure.”

The Salvation Army had a similar program in the area called Booth Manor, Wilhite said, but it closed in 2017. Now, Family Promise is the only organization of its kind. And as it enters its 15th year in the county, the organization is looking to expand again.

Plans for expansion

The program has spent four years in its current location at 111 East Voris St. in Akron. But Wilhite envisions adding an apartment building to Family Promise’s available facilities to better serve the area’s homeless population and shorten the program’s extensive waitlist.

“It’s one of those things that just hits you,” he said. “A family not being in a home is a very disturbing thing. … That’s really the main focus, is how do we serve more families that are on the waiting list so we don’t have a waiting list. Just the thought of a family not being housed is very troubling.”

Family Promise’s funding comes from foundations, corporations, faith organizations and individual donors. To fund this particular endeavor, the organization applied for a $485,960 grant from the state capital budget. Through its capital bill task force, the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, which Wilhite described as “the gatekeeper for those allocations,” approved the request.

“That’s the big first hurdle to go over,” Wilhite said.

The next step is approval from the state legislature. Wilhite said he expects to learn if Family Promise will receive the funds in March.

“We’re getting great support for it here, so we’re hopeful,” he said.

Family Promise has its sights set on an apartment building at 1100 Copley Rd. in Akron. Wilhite said that though the building was constructed in the late ’20s or early ’30s, it’s structurally sound.

“We’re hopeful to get it renovated,” he said. “It’s in good shape.”

The bathrooms, kitchen, plumbing and electric need to be redone, he said, but wall-moving and major reconstruction will not be necessary.

The nine-unit building would feature a laundry room, a community area and a computer lab for families to perform home and job searches. It is located on a major bus line, said Wilhite, and a playground next door would offer children in the program an opportunity to spend time outdoors.

In January, Wilhite said there were about 92 homeless families in the county. Last year, Family Promise served 29 families. On average, the organization helps 28-35 families a year. With the new building, Wilhite said Family Promise could raise that number considerably.

“We can make a significant dent in the number of families that need the service,” he said. “… We could increase to 70 families, which would be a major, major impact on addressing the issue of homeless families with children.”

If Family Promise doesn’t receive the capital funding, Wilhite said the organization will continue to work on the Copley Road building.

“We’re pretty hopeful folks will see the need and we can make this happen,” he said.

Services and shelter

Family Promise offers several opportunities for homeless families, often collaborating with other agencies, such as ACCESS Shelter & Housing and the Battered Women’s Shelter of Summit and Medina counties, to give program members the best resources.

Participants typically come to the program through the Continuum of Care’s homeless hotline, Wilhite said.

“The families come in, we do a case management program with them to get them back on track, and they’re with us 30-40 days [on average],” he said.

Each family is assigned to a computer so they can perform job and home searches. Some families are working but underemployed. Family Promise offers job coaching, mentoring, resume support, help obtaining a GED, “anything we can do to assist them in getting a job,” said Wilhite.

The organization is connected to a host of landlords throughout the community that work with the program to find housing for the families.

“It’s different for every family,” said Wilhite. “Each family’s situation is unique, so we work through that. What do we know is out there that we can assist them in getting back on track?”

Sometimes, the families only stay in the program for two weeks. Wilhite said some are simply not aware of the resources available to them until they learn about them at Family Promise.

The families spend the day at the East Voris Street location to work on their case management plans. In the evening, they are transported to one of 12 host congregations affiliated with Family Promise, including Bath United Church of Christ and Fairlawn West United Church of Christ.

“Each church takes a week at a time,” explained Wilhite. “It’s heavily volunteer-supported.”

Volunteers set up portable beds and help children with homework. If the church has amenities, like gyms, children can play. In the morning, families return to Family Promise’s base center.

“It’s a very family-supportive program,” said Wilhite. “Within that 30-40 days, they are able to find housing.”

Instead of staying at a church, families receiving services in the new apartment building would also live there, Wilhite said.

“This would be a hybrid, an offsite housing,” he said. “The families would be there 24/7.”


Volunteers are sourced from each of the 12 congregations. Becky Weihe, Family Promise coordinator at Bath United Church of Christ, said about 50 people attended a Jan. 21 Family Promise volunteer kickoff breakfast, where Wilhite served as keynote speaker and Weihe provided a volunteer training refresher. The church’s next week to host Family Promise begins April 7.

Wilhite said other volunteers simply call Family Promise because they are interested in helping. The organization has about 900 volunteers countywide, and they perform a variety of duties, including driving vans, making meals and setting up and taking down beds.

Wilhite said walking through the doors of Family Promise is a particularly formative moment for children experiencing homelessness, and the way others interact with them leaves a lasting impression.

“The children in the program, they’ll never forget that [experience], and they’ll never forget how they’re treated,” Wilhite said. “When they walk through the door, they are treated with respect and absolutely no judgment.

“For the folks that are here in this program, the roof over their head is the sky or the headliner of their old car. Children don’t understand why they’re in this place. If we can help get them back on track and get this resolved as a family, that’s how this family stays strong. And there’s nothing more important in the community than strong families.”

Those interested in volunteering can call 330-253-8081 or visit Wilhite said the organization can always use more host congregations for overnight stays, too.

“We’re always open to organizations that are looking for community mission work or need service hours,” he said.

Family Promise especially values its younger volunteers, with the hope they will carry on the mission of helping homeless families in the future.

“It’s an opportunity for younger folks to learn about the issue,” said Wilhite. “If they learn about it and understand it at a young age, they’re going to be the volunteers when they get older, in their companies or congregations, to keep it going.”

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