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Social Impact | December 4, 2012

More than a meal


College students aid efforts to help the homeless get back on their feet

John Lawery went to a local market with his sign, asking for food, clothing, and water for himself and the homeless Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 at East Porterville, Calif. (AP Photo/The Porterville Recorder, Chieko Hara)

Katie Ellingsworth didn't know what to expect as she prepared to give her first tutoring session. Her heart beat anxiously as she placed the book "Heaven is for Real" in her backpack. The story of a little boy's near-death experience would become a tool to boost her students' limited reading skills. When she walked into the homeless shelter, two middle-aged men smiled like children, eager for their reading lesson.

As hunger and homelessness plague communities across the nation, many college students seek to help by volunteering in soup kitchens and shelters. Students from more than 300 colleges affiliated with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness participated in awareness events last month.

But the solution isn't a quick fix. Regular volunteers like Ellingsworth realize that people need more than a meal - they need a way to get back on their feet.

According to the National Coalition to End Homelessness, 636,017 Americans had no stable place to live in 2011. Agencies like the Light House Mission in Terre Haute, Ind. work to lower that number by helping residents overcome personal barriers and acquire the skills necessary to support themselves and their families.

Ellingsworth, a student at Indiana State University (ISU), provided tutoring sessions to residents of the Light House Mission this past spring. Although she started serving meals at the mission while in high school, she decided to use her talents as an education major to help the residents prepare for job applications and GED classes. Serving meals opened her eyes to the needs of her community, but the tutoring sessions struck Ellingsworth on a personal and emotional level.

"I remember calling my mom after my first tutoring session with the two LHM residents and just crying to her on the phone," she said. "I asked how it could be fair that I am so fortunate, but these people struggle to find food, shelter and work. Education is a gift, and no one should take that gift lightly."

While the Light House Mission does provide shelter for anyone in need, those who stay longer than two weeks become part of a program that offers resources and tools for residents to obtain jobs and prepare for their futures. After addressing any physical or mental ailments, the mission helps residents apply for jobs and requires them to save 60 to 70 percent of their income. In 12 to 18 months, many residents acquire their own apartments and live stable, financially responsible lives. But for some, regaining stability is a lifelong struggle they never really win.

One major challenge in the process is helping residents begin to think long term, said Bonnie Wallace, director of development at the mission. When people live on the streets, survival is an immediate and daily concern. Transitioning into a more stable environment requires an adjustment in perspective, in order to recognize the importance of saving money and setting goals, she said. Other challenges include criminal backgrounds, which make it difficult to find jobs, and lack of a family support system.

The economic downturn of the last four years has enhanced the problems of hunger and homelessness. Although some residents made poor decisions that landed them on the streets, many suffered from circumstances outside their control. Even working 40 hours a week at minimum wage often does not provide enough to sustain a family, Wallace said.

College students make up more than half of the Light House Mission's volunteers, Wallace said. Because the mission relies heavily on volunteers, more donations can go directly to individuals in need, rather than paid staff. Between all the mission's ministries, staff and volunteers serve about 400 meals each day.

Jessica Belansky, a senior at ISU, has served meals at the mission for the last three years. Although it's difficult for her to face the reality that so many in her community are without food and shelter, Belansky is often reminded that the Lord cares for each person individually.

She finds encouragement in the residents' positive attitudes, despite difficult circumstances: "They get big smiles on their faces when they see you, and you can tell they are thankful for you serving them."

The Lord demonstrates His grace daily, Wallace said. The mission has served the community for more than 120 years because of individual donations, and the staff witnesses radical attitude and lifestyle shifts on a regular basis. Although mission work is not always easy, changed lives are worth it, she said.

As for Ellingsworth, tutoring at the Light House Mission encouraged her to take advantage of her college education and be thankful: "My experience in tutoring at the LHM changed the way I look at the blessings in my life and the way I look at how I can work to help others."