Family Promise of Linn County ready to help homeless families again

Churches house families overnight, with help of volunteers

John Derryberry

Family Promise of Linn County
John Derryberry Family Promise of Linn County

CEDAR RAPIDS — After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, a program that arranges for homeless families to spend the night in local churches and helps connect them with services and jobs will be back in operation in February.

The Family Promise of Linn County program ran from 2013 through July 2015, when its executive director left.

Now John Derryberry — who has worked with teens at Four Oaks in Cedar Rapids and disabled adults in Iowa City’s Systems Unlimited — steps into the executive director’s job in January.

“We took the two years to get reorganized and refunded,” said Tammy Stines, president of the Family Promise board. “You can only do a certain amount of fundraising when you’re not up and running. There are over 200 Family Promise chapters across the country, so we knew this would work, but we just need to do it right.”

Part of the challenge, she said, was finding an executive director who could fundraise, as well as interact with the community and serve homeless clients.

“It’s a taxing job,” Stines said.

In the program, homeless families are housed in churches. A volunteer from the congregation stays with the family in the evening, and other volunteers prepare breakfast for the family.

During the day, the families are bused to the Family Promise center, now at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Cedar Rapids, where they can shower and do laundry. There they are connected with social services and can use computers to search for and apply for jobs, take an online course toward a high school diploma or participate in a trade program.

Then the family moves to another church where another group of volunteers will help.

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Nationwide, Family Promise involves more than 180,000 volunteers, serving more than 50,000 homeless and low-income people per year.

Up to three families can be helped at one time in the Linn County program. Families typically stay in the program four to six weeks before finding stable housing, Stines said.

Derryberry believes that track record will continue.

“After 14 years of being a social worker, no matter what it is — an abused teen, adult or homeless family — no matter what the population, they will surprise you,” he said.

Derryberry said he became interested in Family Promise because “it’s an alternative solution to a problem. The community of the volunteers (is) going to be responsible for helping these people out of their rough patch.

“It’s not out of sight, out of mind,” he added. “Homelessness is not contained within a shelter, and having these people interact on a daily basis is going to raise awareness. That type of awareness is way more powerful than what some of these other very good and necessary organizations can do.”

The Family Promise program, which is adding a second employee to help Derryberry, also can keep homeless families together instead of being separated to find beds in traditional shelters. The Willis Dady shelter program, for example, is building an addition that can house more families.

Stines said the Family Promise work would not be possible without volunteers from religious communities.

In addition to preparing meals and places for families to sleep inside their churches, volunteers in the past began a mentoring system. Stines said Family Promise of Linn County will begin training volunteer mentors this year.

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“We do this at a third of a cost of a shelter” because everything is donated, Stines said. “And it gives so many people that volunteer experience that they may never have. There are people who volunteer inside their own church but may not stay at a shelter overnight. They love to do this.”

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