Ninety-one-year-old Jan DeLuc loves to volunteer her time with Family Promise of Gainesville, a nonprofit that mobilizes local resources to help homeless families.
This year was DeLuc’s third year volunteering in the Bed Race, one of Family Promise’s key fundraiser events. The event has multiple teams run down a track pushing beds on wheels, which is symbolic for the many homeless families who often have to move around to find a place to sleep for the night.
“I just feel like it is such a worthwhile thing in the community,” DeLuc said. “Some of the churches here, we house some families until we can find homes for them and to me, it is most important because it only deals with children and families. Children are our future.”
Volunteers like DeLuc are what drive the assistance programs Family Promise provides. But the organization is having trouble recruiting new volunteers as area shelters prepare to reopen in May. That’s when Family Promise will need people to bring meals to the facility, serve as evening or overnight hosts, set up the shelter and help with donation drives and special events.
“We really need our volunteers to come back because as of right now, we only have eight weeks out of 13 covered with volunteers to help these families,” Executive Director Jayne Moraski said. “We need those volunteers to help support our families during this time.”
Family Promise is looking for individual volunteers and volunteer groups of up to five people who can work together.
The organization has a schedule of where families in need will be to connect volunteers to those people. People who wish to volunteer must tell Family Promise where in Gainesville they live and provide days and times they are available, Moraski said. If a volunteer lives on the east side, Family Promise may send them on a day they are available to help families with certain things like carrying beds upstairs at a church.
Volunteers can provide meals or donate gently used furniture or household items, Moraski said.
The Family Promise of Gainesville, which was founded in 1998, hosts fundraisers like the Bed Race to support shelters, Moraski said. The organization collaborates with more than 30 different faith and civic groups to provide shelter for at least four families at a time. Family Promise has helped more than 3,000 families get back on their feet since its establishment. Ninety-five percent of families the group helped find homes in 2021 have maintained their own apartment or house without losing their home again.
“We have grown from one staff person, which is me, to now seven and we have added so many different options,” Moraski said. “Our goal is to find as many different ways we can to help families who are experiencing homelessness.”
More than 700 children in Alachua County Public Schools have no home, Moraski said. Children experiencing homelessness are nine times more likely to fall behind in school.
“Attending school while you are homeless, that is a tough thing for a family to deal with,” said Linda Meling, Fundraising and Events Team Member. “So as far as impacting the community and being that this is a small program, creating awareness can be challenging, which is why we have our big events like the Bed Race.”
Among the ways the organization helps homeless families are by providing shelter, furniture, food, daycare vouchers and clothing. It also provides families with one-time rental assistance for a month or two
The $28, 474 raised at the Bed Race in February will support the cost of the shelters and the case management for the shelters, coordinating meals for all of the families and providing furniture for everyone who graduates from shelter, Moraski said. This year, the group also had a 4x4x48 Challenge fundraiser, in which people were challenged to run about two marathons — four miles every four hours for 48 hours. It raised $3,310.
“If you are a runner, you know that is not something a lot of people do,” Moraski said. “So people who participate try to get people to support them at least $1 per mile while they run those 48 miles.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic has created more complex issues. Families have had to be housed in hotels and apartments instead of churches and interfaith organizations, for which Family Promise has paid. The group has also lost $34,000 of resources from volunteers throughout this hardship.
Despite the funding issues, the organization continues to run its programs, including Connect to Work, which identifies barriers for parents to get to work.
“It’s simple things like ‘I need a pair of black, non-skid shoes to work at this job.’ OK, $27 we got you so you can get your job,” Moraski said. “Or more complex things like a CNA (certified nursing assistant) license, that costs about $500; we’ve helped pay for parts of that.”
There are a lot of circumstances that can cause a family to need Family Promise and the resources it provides, Moraski said. Most of the people the organization helps are families who are living in their car with children under 18.
“Lately with COVID, it can be really simple,” Moraski said. “They’ll lose their house because they weren’t able to go to work because they had to quarantine. So that has been really traumatic for families in the last two years, but that’s the kind of scenario of families that we would help.”
Families can also need help if they get a seven-day notice, if they have severe mold in their house or if their car gets damaged. Family Promise aims to help them with their bills while they get back on their feet.
“Anybody who is somewhere where it is not safe or where they really shouldn’t be living as human habitation is who we help,” Moraski said.
The housing provided is intended to be a temporary 90-day program, Meling said.
“If they do need more help, they can come back and get more case management and assistance,” Meling said. “Typically the homeless families that we are working with, this is something that came on fast and they don’t know what to do or where to go but they just want their children to be safe and have a normal life.”
Melissa Keefer, a member of Meizon Mission Church, has been volunteering with Family Promise for seven years. She keeps coming back because she said she knows it makes a difference in the community.
“I think it is so fantastic to find an organization that meets short-term and long-term needs for people,” Keefer said. “A lot of organizations either help you right away or they try to help you get to a better place in the long run, but I think Family Promise does a great job at doing both.”
Family Promise focuses a lot on families with children so poverty and homelessness can stop being generational.
“If you are a child and you don’t have a safe place to live, how are you supposed to do your homework? How are you supposed to get to school every day?” Keefer said. “Even if you are bouncing around from apartment to relative to whatever, you might have to change schools a lot. The families that are experiencing homelessness really end up having the cards stacked against them.”
The organization tries to get to the root of the problem each family is facing to help them overcome their struggles and provide children a safe space to socialize and find academic success.
“I think it is a really great way to interrupt that generational pattern that can develop and just make sure people can get in the right place where they can thrive just like the rest of us,” Keefer said.
Family Promise is all about the community helping one another and showing empathy for people’s situations.
“It is not a hand out, it’s a hand up,” Moraski said. “I think if people knew that the people experiencing homelessness are not that far from us or are one health crisis away from homelessness, I think they would be more willing to support their neighbors.”