Meeting people “where they are” is foundational to Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) mission to serve the community and remove barriers to opportunity. As part of this mission, GCO team members recently participated in a unique weekend retreat at City of Refuge (COR), one of Atlanta’s largest homeless shelters for women and children. While this experience was an excellent platform for team bonding, the team also gained life-changing lessons from the residents of COR.
While many programs provide meals and clothing to the homeless, very few provide the opportunity to connect deeply with those being served. GCO’s retreat was graciously hosted by one such organization, Restoration ATL (RATL), a non-profit dedicated to creating urban ministry environments that foster healing. RATL’s director and weekend guide, Pastor Jim Ellison, emphasized with great passion that volunteers were there to simply “be with” the ladies and children to get to know them better.
Assimilating into life at the shelter was eased immediately by the children. Delivery Manager, Linda Newton, reflects on her initial moments at COR:
My first experience that weekend was with a 3-year old girl. She blind-sided me, running up to me from behind and immediately holding her arms up to me as if we were long-lost friends. I picked her up and she wrapped her arms and legs around me tight. She was absolutely a love, and we became fast friends.
As the children ushered in the team, dinner time provided opportunities to learn about the women of COR and the circumstances that led them to the shelter. While some women were more open than others, the stories and fellowship that flowed across the dinner table further broke the ice between volunteers and residents.
I had the pleasure of eating dinner with a woman named Liz. She shared with me that a house fire displaced her months earlier. This is a situation that could impact anyone! Throughout our encounter, Liz expressed great determination to rebuild her life and provide a future for her one month old son, who had actually been born during her time at City of Refuge. As I held Liz’s son and listened to her, I realized how much like a family member she was. This meaningful meal brought me a new perspective on what homelessness means in Atlanta.
Stories of misfortune were common-place amongst the women, with job loss, mental illness, and domestic violence being just a few of the tragedies impacting their lives. Facing tough paths back to self-sufficiency, events such as the ice cream social–which followed dinner– served as small moments of enjoyment for the women and children alike.
Vice President of Operations, Chris Elder shares his thoughts on the ice cream social:
At the Friday night ice cream social, I had a difficult time discerning who was a resident and who was a volunteer. The women and the kids staying at City of Refuge looked just like the women and kids I see around Norcross. Some of the moms and older kids were even on their phones texting, checking Facebook, and playing games, a scene not unfamiliar in my house. The younger kids played hard and laughed like they were anywhere else but in a homeless shelter. I was left with a restored hope in the pure resiliency of children.
Saturday brought deeper connections with acquaintances made just the day before, as well as enlightenment about the spiritual and emotional needs of those restoring their lives. The women’s morning group incorporated lively discussions about God’s love and building community.
Events Specialist, Katherine Greene writes:
I realized that all of us need community no matter where we live. These women did not choose to be homeless but even in their homelessness there is a strong need for community. Words like love, hope, forgiveness, and togetherness came up as we described a healthy community. It was great discovering things that we had in common. This helped us to learn more about each other and to find a connection to help us bond even more.
Planting vegetables in the community garden later in the afternoon further drove home the importance of community and the harvest that can come from working together. Through expressing feelings and getting hands dirty, personal barriers dissolved into understanding and warm smiles.
GCO team members also participated in a morning full of activities such as kick-ball and arts-and-crafts with the children of the shelter. While fun in nature, free time also revealed some of the hard effects of living in a shelter and family breakdown.
Breakthrough Fellow Michael Schulte writes:
Interacting with the kids reinforced several important lessons for me: Children are eager for attention and affection, they are incredibly adaptable to their surroundings, and they are significantly shaped by those who raise them. While playing with the children brought me a lot of joy, it also carried the sober reminder that a number of these kids come from abusive backgrounds. I saw this in a 12-year-old boy who verbally threatened and intimidated his peers every time they made him angry. I am hopeful that City of Refuge will foster healing for a number of these kids and rebuild trust within relationships they have.
Experiencing both highs and lows at City of Refuge, it was clear by the end of the second day that no one was quite the same as when they arrived. There was an overwhelming sense of honor for having shared time in the lives of so many dynamic, insightful, inspiring, and tough individuals. Team members also found themselves humbled.
It certainly put the trivialities of my life that I consider problems into perspective, and clearly illustrated how slippery the social mobility ladder can be for any of us.
I reflected back on some of my life’s most difficult circumstances and realized that these women were all teachers without even realizing it. They were teaching me (the student) how to listen to people and how to be grateful in everything.
The experience at City of Refuge and participation in Restoration ATL’s weekend retreat is one that will not soon be forgotten by the GCO team.
My last experience at City of Refuge was with a former resident who had come back to volunteer with RATL. She and I spoke quite a bit through the course of the weekend and I learned that she was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, only about 3 years older than me. She had a great spirit and sense of humor and I really enjoyed talking with her. We have since communicated by text, and I hope to stay in touch with her. I fear that she will relapse, as she has many times in the past. I want to continue to encourage her and hope to be a positive influence in her life. I really want her to make it.
The residents of the shelter represent only a small group of Georgia’s 27,000 homeless men, women, and children. Taking the time to view Georgia’s homeless as the friends, loved ones, neighbors, employees, co-workers, and students that they are is vital to enacting meaningful interventions that will change lives.