By Lauren Anderson
The men of Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, Florida, hoped for something more to do than a monthly pancake breakfast. A mother hoped to work with area churches to serve more of the area’s homeless. Hundreds of parents hoped to provide the essentials for their children as they returned to school.
From these hopes emerged Church of the Redeemer’s Day of Hope, a day-long effort to help homeless students start school on an even playing field with their peers.
The Church of the Redeemer hosted its third annual Day of Hope this year, from which 179 homeless children departed with new school supplies, haircuts, clothes, medical check-ups, dental exams, and back-to-school photos. Behind the scenes, more than 180 church and community volunteers made it happen.
“I’ve been involved in ministry 25 years, and I’ve never seen a project with more volunteer enthusiasm and commitment,” said Jay Crouse, men’s ministry leader at Church of the Redeemer. “It captures everyone’s imagination.”
In October Sarasota recognized the Church of the Redeemer for hosting the event, commending the church for its service to the area’s homeless and at-risk children.
The Day of Hope vision originated in 2009 at a neighboring church, as South Shore Community Church member Pam Hawn was searching for another way to serve her community’s homeless. At the same time, she and her husband were beginning to fall prey to the economic downturn. For the first time, she felt anxious about being able to send her children off to school with all the supplies they needed. As Hawn sat in a small-group Bible study one night that summer, she had an epiphany.
Hawn thought: If you’re anxious, how must the moms and dads you serve every week be feeling?
The answer launched Hawn into action. With the first day of school just seven weeks away, Hawn was driven to launch a project to help the area’s homeless children, however insurmountable a task it seemed. The short timeframe prompted an all-hands-on-deck effort to realize Hawn’s vision.
Hawn expected 200 children to attend, with a goal of raising $100 per child. Thanks to community support, the church exceeded the $20,000 fundraising goal, securing $27,000 in the month leading up to the first day of school. Volunteers gave their time as well, as 200 people helped with the day’s activities.
A successful first year at South Shore Community Church inspired Hawn to invite more churches to join the venture.
“I think every church has a heart for the homeless,” she said. “They just don’t know how to connect with them.”
After the success of the first year’s effort, Hawn wrote a how-to booklet for other churches interested in hosting their own outreach events.
Meanwhile, at Church of the Redeemer, Crouse was looking for a community outreach event for the men’s ministry to adopt when he heard about the Day of Hope from a friend at South Shore Community Church.
The vision behind the event aligned with Church of the Redeemer’s already active 30-year-old outreach ministry, and Crouse brought it to the Very Rev. Fred Robinson and the men’s ministry leadership team. Crouse and a team of volunteers began preparations to host a Day of Hope on its downtown Sarasota campus. First, the team shadowed South Shore Community Church’s second Day of Hope event, noting all components of the day, including ordering supplies, coordinating meals, stuffing backpacks and even cleaning up afterward.
Church of the Redeemer’s Day of Hope team soon realized the enormity of the event. “It’s a massive undertaking,” Crouse said.
Every child receives two free meals — and often food to take home — backpacks full of school supplies, and a $50 gift card to buy new clothing. Volunteer services of local doctors and dentists provide each child with a medical and dental exam. A dozen stylists stand post to provide each child with a free haircut.
Day of Hope also attracts local officials. Fire, EMS, police, sheriff’s department and Coast Guard representatives attend the event. The photo area, where children and their families can document the new school year with back-to-school and family portraits, tends to be the most unexpected provision, Crouse said. Snow cones, popcorn, crafts, and inflatable bouncy houses add to the day’s festivity.
After receiving coaching from the South Shore Community Church Day of Hope team, recruiting 180 volunteers from within and outside of the parish, and converting its space to accommodate all of the day’s activities, Church of the Redeemer launched a successful first Day of Hope in 2011.
The church served 84 children in its first year, 85 in its second, and saw those numbers more than double this year after it added a shuttle bus service. This year, the team also initiated an ambassador program, matching one volunteer per family to ensure each visitor received personal attention throughout the day. It’s the dedication of volunteers that allows an operation of this size to work.
“I’m so impressed year after year at how professional the volunteers are,” Crouse said. “They are hard-working, cheerful, and joy-filled. They have a desire to be so welcoming and show radical hospitality. It’s just such a genuine heartfelt appreciation to be able to serve in this way.”
Students and their families are appreciative as well.
“For the kids, it’s a huge day for them,” Crouse said. “They are so appreciative that we’re preparing them for the first day of school. They are really showered upon and blessed.”
When Hawn considers what it means to even the playing field among students in her community, she thinks of her son on his first day of school.
“When he was five years old, he had a new outfit on and new shoes. He looked like he could bust through the door and take on the world,” she said.
That’s the vision for Day of Hope, recognizing the undeniable relationship between self-esteem and classroom performance.
“With more confidence, they will want to attend school more, to do better and get better grades,” she said.
Hawn saw that concept play out with a first-year Day of Hope visitor named Christopher. Then a middle school student, Christopher was far from excited about attending the event.
“He clearly was angry about coming,” Hawn said.
But Hawn felt drawn to Christopher and decided to accompany him and his mom throughout the day’s activities. From the outset, Hawn could tell that Christopher and his mother suffered from obesity and low self-esteem, but Hawn watched a change in Christopher after his time there.
“The really cool thing about Christopher was the way he left two hours later — he was standing tall and his eyes were brightened,” she said.
Hawn saw Christopher again at the church’s Thanksgiving outreach event three months later, but soon afterward heard that he and his mom had gone missing while fleeing an abuser.
The next time she saw Christopher, Hawn saw a transformation.
While managing Day of Hope a few years later, Hawn heard Christopher calling to her, “Mrs. Pam!” He had good news to share.
Christopher explained that a YMCA branch had heard his story, adopted him, and gave him a personal trainer. His whole life was different now, he said.
“I was just so surprised how effusive he was about all the good things happening in his life but didn’t share any of the bad stuff that had happened,” Hawn said.
And as he finished, something Christopher said reminded Hawn of why she puts so much effort into this ministry every year.
“He told me, ‘Mrs. Pam, that Day of Hope was the beginning of a life change for me,” Hawn said.
Experiences like Christopher’s are the types of stories that “capture the imaginations” of Day of Hope organizers and volunteers, she said. Four years later, Hawn continues to dream about how the outreach event can grow throughout the state.
“Next year, we’re hoping to double our efforts,” she said.
The city of Sarasota’s recent recognition of the Church of the Redeemer helps further that goal, as it raises awareness in a time of increasing concern about homelessness in the area, Fr. Robinson said.
“While being recognized is not that big a deal in itself, it lets the community know that the event happened and that there are churches and individuals that are concerned about the plight of the homeless, and it raises awareness,” he said.
Hawn wants to see Days of Hope meet the needs of all the county’s homeless children. The goal is for every elementary school in the county to be partnered with a church for Day of Hope, Hawn said. With five churches now on board, the effort is well on its way.
In the meantime, Church of the Redeemer will continue to serve its community, providing Days of Hope until they are no longer needed in Sarasota.
“As long as we have homeless children, we hope to continue to have the Day of Hope,” Robinson said.
Image of hair stylists at Day of Hope courtesy of the Diocese of Southwest Florida