On a spring Sunday evening at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, worshippers bow their heads to the strains of choral music filtering from the sanctuary. At the opposite end of the building, teens attending the Episcopal Youth Fellowship program play spirited games and devour Mafiaoza’s pizza. And in a newly refurbished room in between these two extremes, Helen and Chris Harmon pull out portable beds and make them up with soft mattress covers, fluffy pillows and freshly laundered linens.
The Harmons, along with other volunteers at St. Luke’s, are preparing to welcome visitors that the church hosts as part of the Family Promise program. The family of four—mom Shannon and three children, Caleb, Kyla and Aries—will “live” at the church for a week.
They family arrives ready to go. While Shannon unloads their belongings onto a cart that a volunteer will take upstairs to their living quarters, Caleb proudly shows off his new watch to Helen. Kyla holds the door open for the adults and then bounds up the stairs to check out the living arrangements. As toddler Aries evaluates his ability to manage the massive staircase on his own, Kyla returns, calling excitedly, “Caleb! Come up! There’s new stuff up here!”
A Promise to Keep
Family Promise of Birmingham is a network of churches and synagogues throughout the city whose mission is to provide support and safe lodging for families who’ve fallen on tough times. In addition to St. Luke’s, other Mountain Brook congregations that participate include Canterbury United Methodist, Mountain Brook Baptist, Saint Peter’s Anglican and Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The partnership fills a critical niche in social services in this area by keeping families intact and working to help them regain their independence.
Back to St. Luke’s this particular week, each morning Shannon drops the kids off at school before she goes to work. They come “home” each night to a meal prepared or donated by church members, a relaxing environment for homework or family time, and a safe place to get a good night’s sleep.
Kim Kimberlin, coordinator of the program at St. Luke’s since 2006, has seen it all during her tenure. “Love and flexibility—that’s our motto,” she says. “Things pop up.” And the volunteers have to be ready.
She remembers a Friday evening when one of the girls staying at the church arrived upset because she couldn’t go to her school’s dance that night. “Her mom told her, ‘You don’t have a dress, you don’t have a way to get there, you just can’t go to that dance,’” Kim says. The volunteers saw an opportunity to play fairy godmother and jumped into action. “We found her a dress that belonged to one of our daughters and a ride to and from the dance.” A true Cinderella story if ever there was one.
All in the Family
The emphasis on family is a key component for the program. This is true not just for the families it serves, but for those who volunteer as well. Bill Carroll, coordinator of the Family Promise program at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, says his enthusiasm and involvement stem from seeing his own parents open up their home to struggling individuals who needed “a hand up, not a handout.”
“I remember when I was a boy my parents took in a young student from the Tennessee School for the Blind,” he says. “It made an impression on me. We encourage our parishioners to bring their children so they can learn what helping others looks like.”
Kim echoes the sentiment: “I keep doing it because of the impact on my family. For my son to come here, bring his football, and go play with a teenage boy who’s just sitting in his room with nothing to do is special to see.”
Shannon has nothing but praise for the program. They were previously in a shelter in Ensley, but she heard about the program and contacted Rana Cowan, the executive director of Family Promise. After completing an intake process that included a background check and drug testing, the family became part of Family Promise. As Aries chases a ball around the Founders’ Room at St. Luke’s, Shannon says simply, “It’s been one positive thing after another.”
All You Need is Love … and Flexibility
According to Kim, for each week that the church hosts, which is generally once a quarter, it takes approximately 40 volunteers to make it happen. Jobs range from greeters to those who prepare and bring meals to those who spend each night in the church with the families present. It’s a labor of love and of service, and while the parishioners at St. Luke’s pretty much have it down to a science, occasionally things don’t go as planned.
Kim recalls that during last December’s surprise snowfall they were hosting two families at the church. Schools were cancelled, and most of the scheduled volunteers were unable to make it in for their shift. Kim admits she was initially a bit frustrated at having to stay so much longer than she had planned, but it ended up being a magical day for all involved.
“It was the birthday for one of the girls. We had ordered a cake from a bakery, but it didn’t get delivered because of the snow.” Ever resourceful, Kim asked the birthday girl if she would like to make a cake from a mix. “Her eyes lit up and she said, ‘I would love to make a cake!’ It struck me how much of a treat it was for this girl to get in a kitchen and make a cake from a box.”
While the snow fell outside, the volunteers who were there asked around and located enough gloves and hats for the guests. With everyone suitably bundled up against the cold, the kids threw snowballs and made a snowman with folks from the surrounding neighborhood. When it was time for the birthday party, they returned inside to a “homemade” cake.
But no party is complete without presents. Kim says that the only thing the girl wanted for her birthday was a copy of the book Wonder. “Thank goodness I had gone earlier in the week and purchased it. The look on her face when she opened it was priceless.”
A day of unexpected memories for all involved. Proof once again for the Family Promise volunteers at St. Luke’s that opening doors to serve others results in blessings for everyone.