by Lisa Tramontana
For many low-income families, receiving emergency food assistance is less embarrassing than it once was. Thanks to HOPE Ministries’ Client Choice Food Pantry, clients can select items in a grocery store-style atmosphere that lets them keep their dignity intact.
The Food Panty, which serves about 15,000 clients each year, is just one of HOPE Ministries’ many programs that address homelessness and poverty in the Baton Rouge community. Founded in 2003, HOPE Ministries promotes self-sufficiency for individuals and families, and educates the community on the causes of poverty and its far-reaching effects on the Baton Rouge area as a whole.
“There are different kinds of homelessness here,” said Kelli Rogers, COO of HOPE Ministries. “That might surprise some people, but it depends on how you look at it. There are the ‘street homeless,’ people we see literally on the street — and then there are those with housing instability — inadequate housing or inadequate access to a place to live.”
These are individuals forced to stay with friends (“sofa surfers”) or families that send their kids to live with relatives off and on, mainly because they can’t afford long-term housing of their own. “Many people are already in crisis by the time they come to us,” Rogers said. “And there are many reasons for it … eviction, domestic violence, or job loss, for example.”
Case managers at HOPE Ministries work hard to put these families in crisis on the road to self-sufficiency, first by addressing their most immediate needs of food and shelter, then by offering job training programs like The Way to Work, which teaches lifestyle behaviors that ensure their success.
Dick Stonich is a member of The Way to Work team, which is designed to help clients overcome barriers to employment and build skill sets that make them valuable in the work force. He has collaborated in developing the curriculum for a 40-hour workshop, Going Beyond, which has made a huge difference in the lives of participants. This workshop, along with case management, forms the core of The Way to Work program.
The lifestyles and behaviors of people who have been raised in poverty are very different from those of people who come from other socio-economic backgrounds, Stonich says. “For someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, their priority (as related to time) is now. They are focused on survival. They are not future oriented. They don’t look down the road or think of things in the long-term.”
The Way to Work team teaches students how to write a resume, interview for a job, handle finances and relate to supervisors and co-workers. Using case studies and role-playing, Stonich helps students reach their potential both personally and professionally.
“The rewards for me are immeasurable,” Stonich said. “It makes me happy to help someone see their value … to discover the talents and abilities they already have … to see them grow and prosper and achieve.”
Over the course of the program, Stonich said the class bonds with each other, and he bonds with the class. “We become friends,” he said. “We are equals. The only difference is that in my life, I have been given more opportunities.”
The Way to Work program also offers a professional development seminar (Understanding Your Workforce) to help employers understand how poverty affects job performance. For instance, an employee who is often late to work might be relying on city bus transportation because he doesn’t own a car. Understanding Your Workforce educates managers and business leaders so they can help employees find solutions rather than firing them from their jobs because of conditions they can’t control.
In addition, HOPE provides a workshop called Understanding the Dynamics of Poverty to educate the community on the challenges of growing up in generational poverty.
Since its founding, HOPE Ministries has fostered a great deal of understanding and collaboration among families, volunteers, local businesses and the community in general. The organization has held a special place in Rogers’ heart since she began volunteering in 2005.
“I grew up in Baton Rouge,” she said, “and moved away for about 10 years. When I came back, I saw the city in a different way. The problems of our community were more visible to me. I have children and a family here in Baton Rouge, and I want to leave them with the kind of community we all want to live in. My work here isn’t about ‘serving the poor,’ it’s about doing my part to strengthen our whole community.”
Rogers is also committed to raising awareness among the city’s more affluent population. “There’s more to poverty than what some people see,” she said. “These are families working really hard to raise their kids and provide a good life for them — the same as anyone else. We all depend on each other. The entire Baton Rouge community is directly affected by how each part of it grows and changes.”
Volunteers are very important, too, and are especially needed for the Food Pantry, which is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Volunteers stock shelves, help clients find food items, and take groceries to clients’ cars. On Thursday mornings, volunteers are needed to unload the food truck when the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank makes its weekly delivery to HOPE.
HOPE Ministries is located at 4643 Winbourne Ave. For more information on programs and services, or to make a donation, call (225) 355-0702 or visit the website at hopeworksbr.com.