Marking 10 years in this community is something to celebrate, and for Family Promise of Blount County it’s been a period of growth and challenges.
The nonprofit that began in 2009 with a handful of churches providing support now has 25 faith communities of varying denominations that give financial assistance and allow homeless families to stay in their churches. The family shelter program has served 322 families in its 10 years, said Kathi Parkins, Family Promise’s executive director. But the number of lives affected by the organization’s humanitarian outreach is hundreds more.
“We had very humble beginnings, where we had just a few churches,” Parkins said. “We housed three or four families to now having four really strong programs.”
Those four programs include the Family Shelter Program, Transitional Housing, Going Home Staying Home and Wheels to Work.
To fund these programs that help Blount County’s homeless families start anew, Family Promise has relied on federal money. But, as of the end of the month, Family Promise has decided to no longer accept that money, which has totaled $150,000 a year for the past five years.
As a result of that loss, one part-time staff position has been eliminated.
With federal money, you have to abide by their rules,” Parkins said. “Their philosophy and ours didn’t always jive. It caused us not to be able to live our mission.”
The Family Promise board of directors made the decision to cut ties with the federal government. Parkins said the organization now is faced with making up for that budgetary loss.
Circus-themed night of fun
On Tuesday, June 18, the community is invited to Family Promise’s 10th anniversary celebration, which the organization is calling The Greatest Show in Blount County.
The circus-themed event is certainly a celebration, but it’s also a fundraiser, Parkins stressed. The location is RT Lodge in Maryville. The evening will include casual dining, silent and live auctions, music, unicyclist, juggler, fortune teller and a costume contest, in which attendees are encouraged to take part. Alcohol will be served. Tickets are $100.
One of the main goals for federal housing money, Parkins said, is housing first above all else. She said when Family Promise tried to implement a rapid rehousing program, it achieved only a 20% success rate. She said her organization would provide financial assistance for families unable to pay rent, but ultimately they would end up getting evicted anyway. The landlords that Family Promise worked with in that program then were hesitant to continue.
Secondly, the federal government has told Family Promise and other similar organizations it can’t discriminate against anyone who is unwilling to work. They would have to accept families into the program that had no intentions of supporting themselves.
“That is a basic premise of Family Promise,” Parkins said. “You must be willing and able to work. We were taking families that couldn’t get housed. I don’t live by the numbers, but that is important to our community. If we start with 30 families and only two are housed now ... .”
April Smith, case manager, and Lorrie Crockett, community engagement coordinator, point to many successes in Family Promise’s 10 years. Just this week, two families moved into transitional housing. They are both headed by single dads raising their children.
Jen Hartley has worked with Family Promise on its thrift store, located in the former Marble Hill Baptist Church on Marble Hill Road in Friendsville. So many items have been donated to this store that Hartley is planning to have a giant sale for the public on July 27. All of the money raised will go to fund Family Promise programs.
But as Parkins explained, it would be most ideal if the organization could find a more suitable location for the thrift store, which then could be open multiple days a week. That income would go a long way toward funding Family Promise’s needs.
The Wheels to Work program means that families needing transportation can receive donated cars. They must go through training that includes car maintenance. It has been successful in helping families hold down jobs, Parkins said.
Financial support comes from a variety of community sources, including churches, businesses and individuals. Family Promise also holds other fundraisers throughout the year, including Spooktacular and the Family Promise Annual Day of Giving, set for Oct. 25.
In the beginning, this ministry was housed at Green Meadow United Methodist Church, but in 2017 it was able to open its new day center at the former Bungalow UMC that had closed its doors. Offices, conference area, a day center for families in the program, storage and laundry facilities as well as a kitchen are housed here.
More than emergency shelter
Looking back over 10 years, Parkins and her staff recall how they were able to help fire victims after the deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg and also provided assistance to flood victims. Family Promise also has worked with Blount County Drug Court to provide a safe place to live for some in that program.
Because of their participation in a Food Rescue program, restaurants provide unused food, which then is given to families in need.
There is now local awareness about Blount County’s homeless, Parkins added. The latest figure is close to 300 homeless in this community, although it’s hard to make an accurate count. Many homeless people rely on the kindness of friends who allow them to sleep on their couches — a temporary solution. She said now that there is awareness, there is action. The fact this community came together to open a warming shelter this past winter is a good example, Parkins said.
Smith, Crockett, Parkins and Hartley acknowledged that none of this would have been possible without the help of volunteers. From the churches that provide shelter space to the financial donors to Kiwanis clubs, the National Guard and ordinary citizens of Blount County, all have taken Family Promise’s mission to heart.
“We can’t even count the number of families we have helped in so many ways,” Parkins said.