MIDDLETOWN – The drawings hang on the wall, ordinary doodles from kids in extraordinary situations.
A bright sun shining on a fish. A boy playing hockey. An American flag.
These kids were homeless. Their artwork adorns one room at Family Promise of Monmouth County’s day center, an emergency shelter for families with nowhere else to turn.
“There are people living in cars with their children in Monmouth County,” Family Promise volunteer Judy Musa said. “It happens to working people. It could be because of bad luck — a car accident, or they got sick. Something happens to them and they end up in crisis.”
Jane and Robert know the feeling. The couple, who asked that their last name not be used, found themselves on the street along with their 6-year-old daughter after complications from diabetes rendered Robert unable to work.
“Nobody would help us,” Robert said. “Family Promise is the only one.”
Filling the cracks
Family Promise was founded in in 1986 in Union County, grew branches in every New Jersey county and has spread to other states as well. It’s an interfaith network of churches that provides a 90-day lifeline to help families get back on their feet.
Here’s how it works: A rotation of churches house and feed families overnight. By day the families are headquartered at the day center, a house that provides computers, showers, a laundry room, a kitchen, a locker room, a play area for kids and transportation to and from the children’s home schools.
All the while, a case manager helps the parents find affordable housing, employment opportunities and whatever else is needed to get back into mainstream life.
“Three out of four families that graduate from the program are able to find either permanent housing or transitional housing,” said Phil Welch, Family Promise of Monmouth County’s vice president and fund development chair.
The day center fills in the cracks with helpful items like toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo, towels, pillows and blankets. Plus it serves as a home address to put down on a resume or job application.
“You’d be surprised how grateful people are for the small amenities,” case manager Ileana Hernandez said. “When they do get a job interview, they have a better chance than if they walked in (disheveled) and someone immediately formulated a perspective on them.”
‘Never let us lose hope’
This holistic approach works, as Jane and Robert can attest. They’ve found housing in Tinton Falls, and their 20-year-old son — who lived with friends during the crisis — is back with them.
“They never let us lose hope,” Robert said. “They always told us things would get better. It was really tough to be encouraged with the situation we were in.”
Even after “graduation,” Family Promise provides counseling and guidance for a year.
“We never thought we would be in a homeless shelter,” said Jane, who works part time in catering. “Family Promise helped us get back on our feet in a place we can actually call home. I’m grateful we were able to get our family back together.”
Family Promise accommodates three to five families (with a maximum of 14 individuals) at a time. There is a waiting list that typically runs 10 families deep, although it swelled to 60 families in the wake of superstorm Sandy.
Such support doesn’t materialize out of thin air. Volunteers and donations are needed. Two fundraisers are taking place this month.
On Feb. 19, Lincroft Presbyterian Church will host a jazz vespers service at 7:30 p.m. A free-will collection will be taken to support Family Promise of Monmouth County.
On Feb. 26, the charity’s annual appreciation dinner will be held from 5:30-9:30 p.m. at McLoone’s Pier House in Long Branch. Tickets are $50 per person. About 100 of the 200 available tickets have been sold.
In six months the day center is moving to a building in Fort Monmouth in Eatontown. The long-term goal is expansion to accommodate more families at once.
In the meantime, the drawings on the wall serve as a reminder of the good works accomplished and the young lives helped.
“The kids would be downstairs coloring, making pictures and bringing them upstairs, saying, ‘Can you put them on the wall?’ ” executive director Tracy Boyer said. “They were so proud.”
Carino’s Corner runs each Monday in the Asbury Park Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW YOU CAN HELP: To donate, volunteer or find assistance, visit the website www.familypromisemc.org or call (732) 495-1050.