Volunteers support shelter

Published 10:25 pm Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Five days after the birth of her fourth child, a girl, Angie started a new life.

Moving with her children and husband into the ForKids emergency shelter in Suffolk, what was important was the opportunity to begin a program designed to set the family on its feet — not to mention giving them all a stable place to lay their heads at night.

This week, though, Angie found something else important at the shelter — generosity.

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“There’s so many generous people,” she said, glancing out a window at a play area where volunteers from Suffolk’s Lowe’s store were working to plant flowers and put up a bird feeder.

The Lowe’s volunteers were there as part of the company’s Local Heroes project, an annual, budgeted event in which the company gives $1,200 worth of products — and a lot of free labor — in an effort to help out a community organization.

“It’s good to be a partner of the community, rather than just a retail store,” Lowe’s Zone Manager Kent Artis said as he took a break from the morning’s work. “It feels good for us, and it feels good for them.”

Artis and Human Resources Manager Diana Betsinger had organized a crew of 12 Lowe’s volunteers to work at the shelter on Wednesday. They were installing concrete benches, birdbaths, shrubbery, landscape lighting and other products that the company’s corporate office had allowed to be donated for the project.

“We want to support these residents, to give them hope,” Betsinger said.

A little landscaping might seem an insufficient gesture to provide hope, but Priscilla Monti, ForKids’ spokesperson, said Wednesday afternoon that it would make a big difference to the shelter’s residents.

“The time and care that these volunteers are giving to this facility shows our clients the pride the community has in this facility,” she said. “It gives them a sense of better self-worth. We love it when people like Lowe’s come in and do stuff like this for us.”

For Angie, who expects to complete ForKids’ four-month life-skills training program and move with her family into a home of their own in July, the generosity of the Lowe’s volunteers caps off an experience that has changed her life.

“Words can’t even describe [the change] from where we were to where we are now,” she said. “I’ve gotten so much out of this program. I thank God every day for it.”

During 2009, ForKids served 47 families like Angie’s at Suffolk House, including 105 children and 86 adults. But funding has been a problem, especially this year. As recently as April, the organization was forced to turn away 21 adults, 47 children and 11 singles because of a lack of space and money to support them.

According to Monti, community support for ForKids’ work in Suffolk has been mixed.

Churches and programs like the Lowe’s Local Heroes one “have been wonderful,” she said. “But as far as financial support, the community has not provided what is needed, and the city certainly has not.”

The organization is looking at a $250,000 budget shortfall by the end of June, Monti said, and some of the programs that make ForKids special are likely to fall away as the nonprofit group struggles to balance its income and expenses.

The shelter itself will not be in danger, she said, “But it edges away at what makes ForKids so successful and so unique.”

Those programs, Angie said, have put her family in a position that she could not have imagined four months ago.

Both she and her husband are working. They’ve saved “a lot” of money. She’s on a path to earn her GED. They’ve been taught how to strengthen their relationship. And they’re preparing to move into a house by themselves.

All of those outcomes result from the work that folks at the shelter have done with Angie and her family and the commitment the family had to learn new ways of living, she said.

And it started with providing them a roof over their heads when the family had found itself out of other options.

Even so, she said, glancing around the living-room area of the shelter and then back outside where the Lowe’s volunteers were working, “It doesn’t even feel like a homeless shelter. It feels like home.”