It was bridge of Hope Night, a night in November, and mentoring groups from five churches of different denominations had gathered support for homeless mothers and their children. Two local Episcopal churches were part of the Hope Night, one was feeding the crowd of about 85, and the other was a newly organized group meeting with "Linda" and her kids for the second time.
Other groups were in various stages of a 12-18 month process that builds self-sufficiency for families in crisis. Each mentoring group sat together with each parenting mother in relaxed conversation. After dinner, the mothers gathered in a room down the hall for a conversation about the five love languages of children. The mentors would remain to hear a presentation about how American culture impacts mentoring.
Perhaps because this transitional shelter program geared toward single mothers, Bridge of Hope, is not about attending to emergency situations, but about what participants describe as "the long haul." The goal is to foster relationships that continue beyond the time when the mother "graduates," according to organization officials.
"Its combination of things is like no other combination I've seen," says Dorothy Pulcher, vice chair of the organization's national office and a member of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Glenmoore, Pa. "We take the broader, the longer-term view, and it's proven to be very successful."
Since 1989, the focused, well defined program has been pairing one homeless woman and her children with a Bridge of Hope-trained mentoring group of eight to 12 people from a local church. Professional staff from Bridge of Hope counsel women about goal-setting, budgets and parenting skills. The organization also provides rental assistance on a decreasing basis, allowing the woman to move toward employment and self-sufficiency.
The results can be transforming
The success rate is 80-85 percent, according to Edith Yoder, executive director of Bridge of Hope's national office in Coatesville, Pa. Says Yoder "Probably a third of the families end up with long-term ties to the congregation, attending church and becoming involved in the church.
"However, 80 percent of the moms end up with long-term relationships with the mentors -- even if they aren't involved with the church."
The results can be transforming
"Bridge of Hope has changed my life. Not in a big, shocking revelation, but in a quiet, slow and steady awakening," says Mercer Roemer, a mentor with a group from the Episcopal Church of the Advent, Kennett Square, Pa. After finishing the formal part of the program in June, she and the group continue to value the young family's friendship and are staying in touch.
"People are looking to be involved in something that reaches out to help other people," Yoder says, then adds: "Certain denominations feel drawn to this work, and the Episcopal Church is one of the more active denominations."
Marion Morton, who with her husband Richard is part of the Advent mentoring group with Roemer, describes the year-long process. "We thought it was a wonderful experience. We felt we got the prize when we got "Monica". She really grew and got self-confident."
Also a mentor with the Advent group is Richard Tait. The fact that he recently joined the board of Bridge of Hope indicates the level of his support for the work.
"It's an opportunity for change," he says. "It's a pretty intense commitment to the moms, and it enables people to get hold of their lives."
It's also rigorous for the moms, he says. "They have strict requirements and are asked to leave the program if they don't meet them." As Monica discovered, missing a meeting when her daughter was sick was "not OK," says Tait, "because the potential for disconnect with the mentoring group is higher."
Originally from Las Vegas, Monica has now settled into an apartment outside Philadelphia with her daughter who will be two years old in December and a woman who helps share the rent. For almost two years Monica has worked as a nurse at Kendal Retirement Home, a job she acquired through one of her mentor's friends. She has a new car, worships regularly at Advent even though she didn't grow up in a church, and now has witnessed her daughter baptized there.
She remembers feeling overwhelmed when she moved across country to live with the family of her daughter, then five months old. No money, no car and plenty of judgmental criticism meant "it was very hard living there," she says. "It made me feel inadequate as a mother and not a good person. My life has definitely changed a lot."
The Rev. Dave Thomas, rector of Advent, was uncertain about the benefits of the program when he first heard about it, but now is enthusiastic. He says it fits with the church's focus on outreach and is one of more than 30 programs that the congregation supports.
Yoder estimates that at least 15 Episcopal churches have organized mentoring groups for Bridge of Hope, now also located in Ohio as well as in Pennsylvania. But that doesn't include the numerous other Episcopal congregations supporting Bridge of Hope financially and with services such as meal preparation for meetings, according to Yoder.
Pulcher, new president of the organization's national board, says, "I believe if the Episcopal Church could embrace this ministry, we could eliminate the homelessness of these families where our churches are located. Even though it's a little difficult to see homelessness up close, our response to our faith is getting closer to people who are hurting and being their friends."
For more information about Bridge of Hope, a national, nonprofit Christian organization with affiliate programs in four locations, go to http://bridgeofhopeinc.org/.