It's amazing what a noble idea and several committed people with a lot of support behind them can accomplish in any Arkansas community.
I'm talking specifically about my hometown of Harrison where Hope Cottages, a transitional housing facility for homeless women and their children, recently opened.
It's also reassuring to realize dreams of helping others can still become reality anywhere with a handful of ingredients: creativity, energy, commitment, support and tenacity.
Hope Cottages is a project of House of Hope, a nonprofit homeless day center, founded in 2011 by Dolly Garrison and Ken Bailey to serve the community's homeless.
These tiny cottage homes were born of need. Over the years, it became obvious a major issue in Harrison was homeless women with children. Three ladies--Garrison, Shirley Smothers, and Arah Dean Turner--met in 2015 to discuss the myriad problems facing these mothers trapped in an endless cycle of homelessness.
The ladies also talked about the town's housing requirements and codes. Garrison and Turner, both members of St. John's Episcopal Church, suggested using long-vacated buildings on the church property that formerly housed St. John's Day School.
They determined the space could be converted into eight individual rooms (each with a bathroom) to house as many families. There was also enough to create a gathering room, laundry and a full common kitchen.
The location also was ideal, within walking distance of downtown, and near the fire and police departments. The mayor and police chief were supportive and the trio soon was joined by Bill Kneip and Travis Turner. Together, they came to comprise the original steering committee for Hope Cottages.
The committed group met weekly to work out operational details, costs estimates, and a business plan. Over time, others joined in.
Their primary concern always has been the children. Smothers, as the homeless liaison for Harrison Public Schools, had the necessary insights and contacts.
They hoped the cottages would help break the cycle of poverty and homelessness and provide families accepted for residence hope for a better future. "We knew Harrison is such a loving, giving community, and once aware of the need, they would respond to the idea of these cottages," said Garrison.
Prospective residents are chosen by a selection committee following interviews and vetting. There are strict guidelines for a candidate to spend the three-month-maximum as a resident. For instance, male visitors are not allowed. The security system is closely monitored.
With groundwork laid, a campaign began on radio, television, churches, and civic organizations to heighten awareness of the problem and gain support. The Episcopal Diocese, who owns the buildings, agreed to an inexpensive long-term lease. Through the city's efforts, the group was able to secure a grant from the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District to add heating and air conditioning, windows and doors.
Then came the necessary fundraising. That included a fashion show/luncheon, a concert with a silent auction in the new Harrison High School Fine Arts Auditorium, and a sit-down dinner/silent auction.
Those efforts raised badly needed revenue while increasing public awareness and support. Many contractors, businesses and individuals saw to the extensive renovation, and much of their work was either discounted or donated. "It's been a labor of love," said Garrison.
Response from local businesses and churches was immediate. Ongoing commitment to provide monthly support for utilities, insurance and security is being provided by three business people along with eight churches from six different denominations through an annual "cottage adoption."
All this effort stemming from a compassionate dream shared by three women nearly four years ago resulted in a successful reality today with the first four mothers and children now living in safe, secure and clean cottages. Although quarters are small, everyone has their own bed. Each cottage is fully furnished, even including a coffee maker. The hope, with sufficient funding to complete the vision, is to ultimately open at least six cottages, two handicap-equipped.
Along with reliable shelter, mothers receive training in life skills, budgeting, stress management, cooking and parenting, along with counseling on how to land and keep a job. Volunteers from the churches also provide ongoing family-centered support.
Once families depart for permanent housing, they will be followed for up to a year by volunteer mentors to provide encouragement and support in maintaining their independence.
"Working together, we hope many lives will be changed for the better," Garrison told me, adding, "this is the most wonderful community a person can live in."
Count this as one of the feel-good stories about rebirth, redemption and the perpetuation of hope made possible by the good intentions and actions of three concerned ladies and a host of supporters who saw and acted upon a pressing need.
If you would like to learn more about Hope Cottages, you may call Rhonda Matthews at House of Hope, (870) 704-8077; Bill Kneip, (870) 715-2467; or Dolly Garrison (870) 391-5906.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 04/23/2019
Print Headline: MIKE MASTERSON: Dedicated to help