The separation of church and state, or perhaps the blending of the same, has been a hot button item in presidential debates and discussions recently, but there are many programs here in Fairfax County that depend on public/private partnerships between county government and the faith community.
One such program is Safe Haven, a volunteer-run day shelter program at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Seven Corners. Sunday’s service celebrated the successes of Safe Haven during a Lenten “Week of Compassion.”
Safe Haven was founded at First Christian by the late Bill LaLiberté more than 15 years ago. Originally a hypothermia program to bring people out of the cold and provide a warm meal and shelter, Safe Haven now operates on Thursdays all year, and adds Tuesday programs during the winter. More than 100 people come to Safe Haven each session, including men, women, and children. Many identify themselves as having housing, but their housing may be as rudimentary as having an easy chair to sleep in, or doubling and tripling up with family or friends in overcrowded conditions. County mental health staff and social workers are available to assist with county services, but the program depends mostly on volunteers from the community to make it a success.
And a success it is. People who once felt isolated and alone are building social skills that may help in getting them on their feet and qualifying for a job. They can come to the church fellow-ship hall and read, learn English, play checkers, work puzzles, get their hair cut, and learn that there are good people who really care about their well-being. Tom Esler, a former guest who returned as a volunteer, said that, when he first went to Safe Haven, “it was a strange place. Everyone was so kind and welcoming, not something I was accustomed to.”
Reverend Kathleen Kline Chesson, pastor of First Christian, views Safe Haven as an “extraordinary mission” for the church, and a “ministry of compassion.” Safe Haven Coordinator Rob Paxton notes that one of the finest, but also difficult, rewards for the volunteers is when a client “graduates” to go to a job or secure permanent housing. Their success means that they will not need Safe Haven anymore, but the volunteers “know they have done their jobs and people are in a place that is more rewarding to them.” Assistant coordinator Erin McKenney learned more about the day laborer population while working at Safe Haven. “Most have little work,” she says, “and are living life on the edge.” If providing meals means that they can use their small earnings to pay for rent instead of groceries, “then we are doing our mission,” she added. Safe Haven is sponsoring a Career Day today, with representatives from local companies who will talk about the type of employees they are looking for, and what it takes to get training for various jobs. Counselors will help with resume writing and interview skills.
Volunteers are Safe Haven range from teens to a 92-year-old lady who makes “the best brownies!” For more information about Safe Haven, the public/private partnership, or to volunteer your special skill, log-on to the church Web site, www.fccfc.org, or send an e-mail to Rob Paxton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Regardless of religious or political affiliation, your help is needed.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at email@example.com