Thomas Kidd, right, volunteers at Sybil H. Smith Family Village, a United Methodist Women supported national mission institution.
Angela Williams remembers the first time she laid eyes on her one-bedroom apartment at the Sybil H. Smith Family Village in Mobile, Alabama.
"It felt like I was walking into a castle," she says. "Everything brand new, everything clean and cozy. I never thought something like this was possible."
Her life now is a long way from just a few years ago, when she was couch hopping, staying in a shelter or sleeping in her car, wondering where she would get her next meal. Though she never lost her faith in God, she admits there were times she felt scared and unsure about her future.
Today, the divorced mother and her two young children are safe and secure in a place she calls home. She has a job with a call center, is working toward her associate's degree in health care information technology, and has access to on-site social services and free life-skills programs. Like all residents Sybil H. Smith Family Village, she volunteers 30 hours per quarter and turns over 30 percent of her monthly income. Half of that goes toward program services; the other half goes into a move-out savings account.
Ms. Williams has the option to stay up to two years in this 17-unit transitional housing program run by the Dumas Wesley Community Center, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, the program is tailored to meet the needs of the individual. It starts with helping break the cycle of homeless and becoming self-sufficient.
And it has an impressive track record. Nationally, the success rate of those who have gone through a housing program like this is about 60 percent; at Sybil Smith Family Village, it's closer to 85 percent. Nearly 500 families or individuals have lived at the village since its opening in 1999.
"I really don't know where I would be without this place," said Ms. Williams. "The people who work here, they want you to be a success story. They help you set goals and take the steps to make dreams possible. I am so blessed and so thankful."
United Methodists respond
At the turn of the 20th century, United Methodists saw a need in the community and responded.
In 1903, they founded a day care for the children of the parents who worked long hours for low pay in the cotton mills of the Crichton community in Mobile. It would be named for Mrs. Jeremiah T. Dumas, the first board president, and for 18th century Methodist founder John Wesley.
The day care evolved over the years, adding new programs that served the economically challenged neighborhood. Now in its second location, the Dumas Wesley Community Center plays a critical role meeting basic needs of local residents. Most of the households in its vicinity are headed by single mothers with an average family income of less than $10,000 a year. Nearly 70 percent of the clients qualify as low income, and 95 percent are of a minority population.
Today, Dumas Wesley a bustling full-service center with a $1.2 million budget and an ambitious mission to educate, empower and enrich the community. Sixty percent of its income comes from government funding, and 40 percent from individuals, corporate and church support.
"Without local United Methodists, we would have to cut services drastically," says executive director Kate Carver. "We have a long history here because of the church affiliation. It has been our partner since day one, and it's the reason we've been able to grow."
Besides the transitional housing complex, Dumas Wesley offers an after-school and summer recreation program for local youth, a food pantry and clothes closet, a day program with hot meals and medical transportation service for senior citizens, and neighborhood outreach. Ms. Carver says volunteers are the backbone of the center, providing support across all of the platforms.
"Our budget simply can't pay for all the staffing we would like to have," she said. "But that volunteer network, from seasonal helpers to people who come out two, three times a week all year long, they are the difference makers."
Giving and receiving
Leigh Faircloth is among those legions of volunteers. She's the volunteer coordinator for the Joseph Project Food Pantry, a nonprofit operated by Ashland Place United Methodist Church in space donated by Dumas Wesley. The pantry serves a multitude of low-income clients in the Mobile community, from the elderly to families, with a few dozen volunteers distributing bags or boxes of food every Thursday morning.
In a 10-month period beginning in January 2015, nearly 4,000 households got free food from the pantry, which is stocked with items purchased with cash donations from the Bay Area Food Bank. Those homes included some 2,200 seniors and 4,500 children, all whom may have missed meals without this assistance.
For Ms. Faircloth, a retired elementary teacher and former president of the Junior League of Mobile, her three years as coordinator is the most fulfilling work she's ever done.
"God wants us to serve others," Ms. Faircloth said. "We can see Jesus in the eyes of our clients, and we want them to see Jesus through us."
How much difference can one person make? Ms. Faircloth got her answer one Sunday in church when she addressed the congregation: How many of you have donated peanut butter or a canned item to the pantry? Several children stood up. Then she asked: How many of you have given money? More stood up. Has anyone out there ever volunteered? Dozens more stood.
By the time Ms. Faircloth finished her questioning, nearly every congregant was standing. She had made her point. Add up every small effort, and the result can be powerful.
Ms. Faircloth has another, more personal, reason for embracing the pantry mission. Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Her physician husband and three grown children were her rocks, but her church family as well rallied around her. She never will forget all the support she got by way of prayers, meals and visits as she battled the disease.
Now she's cancer-free and giving back with her service.
"I've been given this new lease on life. So it's my turn to help others, just as I was," she says. "It's such a humbling experience to be on the receiving end of so much love and kindness."
Another Dumas Wesley volunteer shares that same attitude of giving back.
Seven years ago, Thomas Kidd and his younger sister were uprooted when his mother fled an abusive relationship. They found a safe haven at the Sybil H. Smith Family Village, where they lived for a year while his mother worked with a case manager to learn skills to start a new life.
"It was a good environment, from the people who worked there to the families who lived there," says Mr. Kidd, now 19. "We were able to stay together and get a new start in life. It changed everything for us."
The trio still lives together in his late grandmother's home. His sister is a high school sophomore and a flag corps member, and he's a freshman at Bishop State Community College. His mother works full time for the center, which has a contract to oversee about 60 home day care programs licensed by the state. She is one of the food monitors who make sure they are following guidelines by providing proper nutrition in a healthy setting.
Mr. Kidd still has a connection to Dumas Wesley as well. He started volunteering there when he was a freshman in high school, mentoring local kids at the recreation center who needed a positive male role model. Staff noted his work ethic and professional demeanor, rewarding him last year with a paid gig as an assistant youth director for the center's neighborhood outreach. In his spare time, he also works at a local Mexican restaurant.
Like his mother worked out a life plan for a better future, Mr. Kidd has done the same. His goal: to transfer to University of North Alabama next year and study sports management.
"I owe a lot to Dumas," he says. "It will always be part of my life in some way."
Government funding can be fickle. One year it's there, the next year it's not. The Dumas Wesley Community Center is like any other nonprofit, dependent on outside resources in order to provide meaningful services and hire the staff to implement them.
When HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, cut some of the funding for household and school supplies for families living in the Sybil H. Smith Family Village, it was a huge blow.
Some of the residents move in with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Since they have to sign a waiver of homelessness upon arrival, they most certainly don't have basic items for a home.
The United Methodist Women of the Alabama-West Florida District stepped up. They had heard the stories of residents who spoke at their meetings over the years and knew the value of the program. So for the past two years, members have taken part in a district drive to donate new items or raise funds to pay for the basic supplies to fill cupboards and cabinets, such as bedding, towels, pots, pans, cutlery and cleaning items.
"It's a hands-on project for us," says Demopolis District President Jean Creswell. "We've got some 400 women in 11 counties, and a drive like this brings everyone together for a united cause. It gives you a great feeling because you know it will directly help a person in need."
No one is more grateful than Ms. Carver.
"Sometimes, you have to trust your faith," she says. "We run a tight ship here. When funds are cut or donations drop off, it has a big impact. So this made such a difference."
It also ensures that the families who complete the program successfully and transition to a permanent home will be able to take those supplies with them when they leave. And brand-new items will be waiting for the incoming residents.
"It's about dignity. We want our clients to get a new start. So little touches like new bedding and towels can do wonders to lifting a person's spirit," Ms. Carver said. "They've lived a life of hand-me-downs. Now we're turning a page."
Debbie Bell, Mobile District president, said United Methodist Women members are called on to support women and children in efforts all over the world. But the best part about serving the programs at Dumas Wesley Community Center is its close proximity.
"We get to connect to this action in our own backyard," she said. "We can take some ownership with this amazing agency because it's part of our community. We get to physically witness what happens to the funds we raise."
Her favorite outreach: collecting seasonal candies in her own Lydia Circle to distribute to the Family Village children on holidays. Her group fills Christmas stockings and Easter baskets with sweet treats to help out financially stretched parents.
"I know it's just candy, but you want the kids to feel normal and not left out," Ms. Bell says. "Sometimes the little gestures are the most meaningful. And, truthfully, what we give doesn't compare to what we receive in return."
Ms. Carver never takes for granted the support of United Methodist Women of the Dumas Wesley Community Center. The strong and ongoing relationship forged more than a century ago continues to make a powerful impact by meeting critical needs, strengthening families and encouraging personal responsibility. Or, as in the case of Mr. Kidd, developing leadership skills.
"It's a success story," she says. "This is an example of what teamwork and commitment can accomplish. And the work continues on."
Michelle Bearden is former religion reporter for The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV and is now a freelance writer specializing in faith and values. She's a two-time winner of the national Supple Religion Writer of the Year award from the Religion Newswriters Association.