The foundation of Family Promise began in Union, NJ in 1986 on a day when Karen Olson, who was rushing off to a business meeting, passed a homeless woman. She impulsively stopped long enough to buy her a sandwich for her, but the woman – Millie – asked for a chance to be heard. Karen slowed down long enough to listen to this woman’s story. For the first time she was face to face with the reality of homelessness, and the resulting feelings of diminished self-worth, along with a deep sense of being disconnected from the rest of society.

But poverty is complicated

Shaken by her observations and deeply moved by Millie’s plight, Karen was inspired to do more than buy sandwiches. She wanted to make a profound change – not just by feeding those who are hungry but by really changing their lives. Karen knew that the solution could only occur if she was able to help these people find employment, reconnect with society, gain their dignity back and ultimately break the cycle of poverty. Recognizing that she could accomplish more if she built a network of committed partners, she approached the religious community, where she found the help she needed. Congregations offered hospitality space in their facilities, the YMCA provided showers and a family day care center while a local car dealer donated a van. Known as the National Interfaith Hospitality Network, the roots of Family Promise were planted with a lot of enthusiasm. The road was going to be bumpy, but they were ready and so the first interfaith hospitality network was launched on October 27.

Because of the many facets of poverty, Family Promise had to find a way to address the numerous challenges on many levels. This included educational outreach, smart programming and the healing hands of thousands of volunteers who provide food, shelter and support services along with advice and advocacy.

A fascinating vision and a bold mission

The volunteers and supporters that Karen galvanized agreed that the goal of the nonprofit should be to develop “a nation in which every family has a home, a livelihood and the chance to build a better future.” The organization is determined to change lives, keep families together and achieve success. They do this through their unflagging commitment to a practical, holistic approach that integrates prevention, shelter and stabilization.

  • Preventing families from spiraling into homelessness is the first step. This includes arranging for government funding, rental assistance and landlord mediation to keep families from losing their homes in the first place.
  • Sheltering families is accomplished with the help of a network of affiliates. These partners, often religious organizations, offer their existing space to shelter families in emergency circumstances.
  • Stabilization is the final phase, involving thousands of programs to address all the needs that occur on the path to self-sufficiency.  These include leveraging permanent, supportive and transitional housing programs, arranging for child care and job training, attending health and wellness programs, as well as obtaining food, furniture and clothing donations.

A national model that is thriving on a local level

Under the leadership of CEO Claas Ehlers, Chief Impact Officer Cara Bradshaw, Chief Operating Officer, Sandra Miniutti, and deep and talented staff, dedicated board members and thousands of volunteers, Family Promise has been able to spread its model across the country. Since its inception 30 years ago, this disciplined approach has taken root in 43 states with more than 200 affiliates pursuing the awesome mission of eliminating poverty and homelessness.

Within just two years after the initial launch in 1986, the first affiliate was formed. In 1988 the National Interfaith Hospitality Network was created to expand the program nationwide. With 200,000 volunteers across the country, if these were employees, Family Promise would rank as the United State’s 35th largest employer!

These nearly 200,000 motivated and dedicated volunteers bring a combination of shelter, meals, housing, child care and job-seeking support to their communities, turning the tide and working to eliminate poverty in their regions.

Family Promise emerges

Over the decades since Karen Olson first met Millie, this organization has been refining and defining the ways to overcome the complex challenges of poverty. In 2003 the name was changed from National Interfaith Hospitality Network to Family Promise – in order to more accurately tell their story and demonstrate their intent to fulfill a promise to all families.

More than 125,000 people were served last year, but the bold goal is to change the future of one million children by 2030. Working with affiliates across the states and strengthening partnerships with a growing list of corporations such as Belk, PetSmart (enabling families in shelters to keep their beloved pets), Woodforest Bank, Cabot Creamery Cooperative and Motel 6, they can reach more families and improve more lives every day.

Affiliates work smart, engage the community and change perceptions

From its humble beginnings in New Jersey, Family Promise has emerged as a national leader serving 950,000 family members nationwide since it opened the doors on day one.

To accomplish this they have worked diligently to build a powerful national network. It requires about 18-24 months, to develop an affiliate from the ground up, to develop an affiliate, working with local stakeholders and identifying leaders and partners who will assume responsibility for the affiliate. Each affiliate maintains its own independent status as a 501 c 3 organization, but they remain closely connected with the NJ ‘headquarters.’ Each newly formed affiliate follows the well-established model that grew from the initial 1986 concept, but often they suggest new ideas, tweaks, and relevant improvements that evolve at the local level and then spread to other areas.

Conclusion

Reading the dismal facts about poverty and homelessness in this country is heart-breaking. All too often we are overwhelmed by the mounting challenges facing us. But Karen refused to let herself get caught in a state of helplessness. Instead, she figured out a way to change the existing reality, one neighborhood at a time. To learn more about Family Promise and to download their annual report, visit the website at www.familypromise.org.