Family Fun Day planned for those living in highway motels
By Fallan Patterson
For the News-Gazette
Since the Community Hope Center of Osceola County opened six months ago, the organization has added 165 people to its case management plan, which helps them find housing, food, employment and other assistance.
The organization is hosting a Family Fun Day today from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at its facility, 2198 Four Winds Blvd., Kissimmee, for the families living in the motels along the U.S. Highway 192 corridor.
It’s those families the organization seeks to help.
Considered a “one-stop shop” for homeless and low-income families in West Osceola County, the organization aims to meet all of the needs a person or family is asking for without pointing them to other agencies.
“Each person’s case is different,” said Mary Lee Downey, executive director of the Hope Center and director of missions at Community Presbyterian Church of Celebration, which helped set up the organization. “We’re trying to look at the whole person and connect them to what they need.”
Most people seeking help at the Hope Center reside in the motels along U.S. Highway 192; next are the chronically homeless, and one-third are those living in unfit habitation such as cars and tents.
“The model of connecting people and becoming a one-stop shop is really working,” Downey said.
Area agencies such as Kissimmee-based women’s shelter Helping Others Make the Effort, the Salvation Army, Covenant House and the Osceola County Council on Aging have office space and staff that regularly meet with clients to assess their needs.
Warren Hoagland, community services director at the Council on Aging, said he was ecstatic over the partnership with the Hope Center.
“The Hope Center is a fantastic way for us to reach out to that side of the county where there’s a lot of blight,” he said. “We find a lot of our families there.”
Three days a week, the Council on Aging’s “Building Strong Families” case manager meets with clients at the Hope Center, working with motel families to find stable housing.
The energy specialist also meets with people at the Hope Center to help with utility assistance.
“It’s instant clients,” Hoagland said. “The need is so great, I don’t know if we could have enough agencies out there.”
This school year, the Osceola County School District has identified 2,300 students that meet the Families in Transition criteria, meaning they live with their families in motels, cars, tents or with family or friends.
Niki Whisler, Osceola County’s homeless advocate coordinator, estimated the number of homeless children at around 3,800 in Osceola County, due to those children not being of school-age or those that haven’t been indentified yet.
While the county lacks the funds to help financially support the Hope Center, Whisler meets clients at the organization whom she helps through the rental assistance grant.
The grant allows Whisler to help between 28 and 30 families find stable housing.
“A lot of my clients don’t have transportation so it’s easier for them to meet me at the Hope Center,” she said. “The numbers keep growing. I know they’ve taken in an incredible amount of families. I know the biggest need is housing.”
The families also need food, much of which is provided by the Council on Aging, including fresh produce purchased from local farmers through the organization’s Farm to Table program.
“For a lot of our families, this is the only way they get fresh fruits and vegetables,” Hoagland said. “Out west, it’s a food desert, meaning they lack enough grocery stores.”
The Hope Center also helps clients find jobs, prepare résumés, practice for interviews and even dress properly through the professional wear closet.
The closet, which was opened in May, is filled with everything from shoes, to dress shirts, skirts and even jewelry and makeup.
“I like to give them the whole package to help them feel stronger about themselves,” Downey said, adding the organization is always accepting donations for the closet.
She’s planning a drive to collect items for the closet, including toiletries.
Downey also is expanding the Hope Center, hiring a new case manager and planning to start weekly life skills classes at the facility.
And the organization always is in need of volunteers to help with anything from intake to sorting food in the pantry.
For more information on volunteering, email Sheryl Sainlar at Sheryl.firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Downey, who has spent most of her professional career helping others, the growth of the Hope Center and the clients who are successfully helped solidifies all hard work.
“It’s really amazing to have a vision about how something should work and see that happen,” she said.