2011-03-23 / Front Page

Restoring dignity one evening at a time

By Maya Lear Brewer

Volunteer Kim Wiest dishes up a salad as part of an evening meal. 
Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Volunteer Kim Wiest dishes up a salad as part of an evening meal. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer A sense of community evolves when people dare to cross racial and economic barriers to care for those less fortunate. Walls of fear and ignorance come crumbling down. Prejudices and stereotypes are dispelled. Compassion, love and generosity ultimately win. That’s what CARITAS (Congregations Around Richmond Involved to Assure Shelter) is all about, restoring dignity to homeless individuals while assisting them from shelter to stability.

“It’s been our experience that individuals in the counties want to serve those in need, but there’s been a reluctance to cross the racial and economic barriers to bridge the two communities together,” said Sharon Drescher, CARITAS’ director of volunteer development. “Our shelter program brings the urban need into the counties. When they join together, those in the county serve this homeless population like kings and queens. They pour their whole heart into it, and both parties benefit.”

Rows of empty cots fill the fellowship hall at Clover Hill Assembly of God. 
Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Rows of empty cots fill the fellowship hall at Clover Hill Assembly of God. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Recently CARITAS teamed up with Clover Hill Assembly of God to provide shelter for 40 homeless women, ages 18-85, for two weeks. These women are homeless for a variety of reasons, including trauma and mental illness, disabilities, drug addictions, domestic violence, being kicked out by family members or ex-boyfriends, and recent incarceration. Each has a story that’s unique. (See page 14 for a couple of their stories.)

Each day, CARITAS transports the women via bus to a host church by 7 p.m. for eating and sleeping, then to a drop-off point in Richmond by 8:30 a.m. for their daily routines. During the day, the ladies do a variety of activities. Some of them have jobs. Others attend appointments with case workers. Some visit libraries to look online for jobs, or they visit family and friends. Many others walk the streets or nap until pick-up time.

CARITAS client Ella Sexton (right) enjoys a visit with volunteer Judi Telenko and her dogs. 
Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer CARITAS client Ella Sexton (right) enjoys a visit with volunteer Judi Telenko and her dogs. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer “I wanted the guests to truly feel at home while they were staying at Clover Hill,” explained Ashley Buck, a church volunteer and recent graduate of Virginia Wesleyan College. “I know that when CARITAS guests face the world during the day, they’re stripped of their dignity with ugly stares, rude comments, and by having to carry all their possessions around with them. Giving them back a little piece of their humanity each evening when they come back to Clover Hill by reminding them that they are fearfully and wonderfully made is important.”

It was a call to action during Clover Hill Assembly’s two-week “in-house mission” project. All church activities except Sunday services were halted to encourage participation by church members. Nearly 250 to 300 church volunteers contributed daily meals and snacks, did laundry and ironing, and coordinated activities for their guests. Activities included line-dancing, costume jewelry giveaways, massages, pedicures and manicures, Bible studies, haircuts by Salon Bliss, crafting, game nights and more. Other groups, including the Bailey Bridge Middle School cheering squad and girls volleyball team, the Royalette’s Baton Corps and Clover Hill Christian Academy, also joined the festivities by offering hospitality gifts, performances and event setup.

“I love the fact that we had so many volunteers; however, we were a much smaller church when we first started this in 2006,” said John Dugan, Clover Hill’s team leader for the CARITAS event. “Smaller congregations need to know that they can do this without having 250 to 300 volunteers. In our early days, we had fewer volunteers, and we had to transport our guests to the nearest YMCA for showers.”

Clover Hill’s aim was to ensure that their CARITAS guests felt valued, loved and appreciated. For them it was more than just providing a place for these ladies to get out of the cold, or to have a shower or a meal.

“We want the ladies to know that God loves them,” said Lisa Martinez, Clover Hill’s activities coordinator for the CARITAS event. “Whether their darkest day is today or one month down the road, they can point back to being here and know that God’s love is real. Hopefully they’ll think, ‘They just loved me. They didn’t care where I’d been or what I’d done. They just loved me.’”

Buck, who has completed a double major in religious studies and sociology, is a semiveteran in extending care to the homeless population. During her four years of study she was part of a coordinated effort to provide shelter for 80 to 85 homeless men and women on her college campus for a week each January.

Buck, now 22, has suffered abuse and neglect in her life and can relate to others in that plight. She, however, was lucky. Another family “adopted” her when she was 18 and has helped her overcome many of her previous obstacles.

“When people in this population share their stories, they usually assume that you can’t connect with them, that you can’t truly understand,” Buck explained. “And when I am able to share even a little piece of my story, and they feel like they’ve really been heard and brings a little bit of redemption to me as well...Homeless individuals are some of the most real people that you’ll ever meet. They have hit one of the most ultimate rock bottoms and are experiencing life so differently… and when they extend their love to you it is just deeper.”

According to an annual point-in-time study by Homeward, an area homeless organization, approximately 1,100 people are homeless on any particular night in Greater Richmond. Most of those individuals are in a shelter each evening, and approximately 119 are on the streets. Homeless numbers aren’t available specifically for Chesterfield or other surrounding counties.

Throughout the year, 185 area congregations and a few temples host one of four CARITAS groups – a ladies-only group, two men-only groups or a family group. Approximately 150 persons are housed each week through the CARITAS program, and nearly 1,000 individuals have been sheltered during the last year.

Around 45 Chesterfield congregations serve as CARITAS hosting sites or partners in volunteering. Smaller congregations or individuals can assist hosting churches in the preparation of food, which can be as simple as a continental breakfast or creating bagged lunches, or by washing the guests’ clothing, or even by hosting a “Pack a POD” event at their church to receive donations of gently-used furniture.

According to Drescher, CARITAS is unique to the Richmond area. The organization started with three to four Richmond congregations wanting to take the homeless in for the winter. The early “winter cot program” began with congregations of different denominations having the same heart and a common mission.

“I always say that it still blows my mind that we have no permanent shelter. It’s a shelter without walls,” explained Drescher. “We bring the shelter to the congregations by bringing the clients, the cots, the pillows, the linens and the blankets. The churches provide the shelter, three meals each day, provision for a shower, laundry and some activities. It’s worked for over 20 years...that’s the part that continues to amaze me.”

Mary Johnson was one of the women who stayed at Clover Hill. (Read her story on page 14.) She is grateful to have had a place to come home to each evening where she feels welcomed with a hot meal and generous hospitality.

“What’s happening here is really important… Many of these ladies have never been loved,” said Johnson, who’s been homeless since November. “This church is so full of love...There’s an experience here of love and caring that lots of these people have never had before. This is what is needed. Loving like this may cause these folks to turn their lives around.”

Want to help?

For more information on how you or your organization can become involved with CARITAS, call 358-0964 or visit

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