Written by: Amy Knorr
I had not interviewed a team of coordinators before, and I really didn’t know what to expect. As I sat and listened to Jean Pitts and Karen Bates, I was struck by how connected they were. This was not a co-coordinator situation. This was a coordinator position shared beautifully by three generous and humble women. (Note: Ruth Simonson was unable to meet with us due to a death in the family. Her gracious emails served to confirm my observations.) Their care for and enjoyment of each other was as evident as their care for and enjoyment of the Family Promise guests who came to stay at Westminster Presbyterian Church. For this team of two transplants and one life-time Chester County resident, home is a powerful concept, and all three of them have found it here. Their clear passion to make a home for people who find themselves without one is inspiring.
(Photo from L to R: Karen Bates, Jean Pitts & Ruth Simonson)
How did you get connected with Family Promise? What drew you to volunteering?
Ruth: One of our pastors still laughs about how this happened. One day, I mentioned to her that I was waiting/looking for the right thing to get involved with next. Within days, she mentioned Family Promise, and wondered if I would consider becoming a coordinator. I certainly believed that our church could become a host congregation for Family Promise of Southern Chester County. I knew that the facility could meet the needs of guests, and felt that our collective heart as a congregation would take care of the rest of it! When we decided to have a coordinator team, it was a done deal.
Jean: I attended the first meeting and that was that. I had commented to Ruth two weeks prior that I wanted to really get more involved and then she asked me to go to the Family Promise meeting.
Karen: I’ve been pretty involved in the church for a long time but outreach has always pulled on my heartstrings. Ruth came to me with Family Promise, and I knew it was definitely something I wanted to be a part of.
Tell me what a day/night in the life of a co-coordinator looks like.
Jean: It’s a little like juggling. When it comes time to roll up the sleeves and get to it, Karen is right there in the thick of it. I like to think what holds us together is that we laugh and have a good time together. We never let a ball fall.
Karen: It’s amazing! I think we all have our own gifts. Jean is very organized and great at correspondence. Ruth is good at history and context and connecting Family Promise to the church. I am a doer. I just like to jump right in. We have each other’s back and care about each other. We have the common goal of helping these families, and that is amazing.
Jean: We are the Gumby Sisters. (She pulls a little gumby figurine out of her purse.) It’s about being flexible because the roles change, the needs change. Thanksgiving is a week we often host. The first year, we had Thanksgiving Dinner all planned, and then all of a sudden all the families were invited away for the holiday. The nature of the program is that the numbers can change any time during the week.
Karen: The bottom line is that these families have some sense of hope and a roof over their heads and a hot meal. There’s really no wrong way to host. There are not really defined roles for the three of us, but they are kind of assumed roles based on gifts.
Jean: Ruth does the timelines and announcements and publicity. She has been out this past week, and we almost dropped some things. We really make a good team. Each of us just does what we know we need to do. We finally use Sign-up Genius…whew! Our Volunteer Coordinator needed to step away from that role, and one of our young moms in the church now sets up a Sign-Up Genius for us. That helps with keeping all the volunteer needs clear. During off weeks, all the Family Promise stuff is kept in a closet. We pull it all out the week before, and then about 4 people come in and help set up all the rooms and make the places cozy. We have three meal prep people, and 3-4 hosts. It’s a big operation.
Karen: Our church has certified food prep folks who prepare all the meals and stock the shelves with breakfast and lunch supplies. Then our Family Promise food prep volunteers come in and heat everything up according to the directions. This makes our dinner preparation go really smoothly.
Jean: Yes, and we have several young moms that come to serve and just bring their young kids along.
Karen: All three of us come over the course of the week and enjoy the families. It’s really nice to get to know the families during the week.
Jean: Right. We wait to find out where the gaps are and sign up for those. But we also come to help first time volunteers get settled. Really, we have our gifts and we just gel. Phone, email, face-to-face…we’ve got it covered.
Ruth: Working with these ladies has been a joy. We have different gifts and different schedules, but we make it work each time. If someone has scheduled time away for a holiday, and that’s our host week, that’s fine. We don’t ever need 3 coordinators at once, but it has helped! If one of us forgets to be flexible, another reminds us. The Semper Gumby lesson was the most helpful part of training to me – we typically go about our lives feeling a little more comfortable with what we need to do – and more in control of our days than we can be during a host week. We simply can’t know everything we’ll need to accommodate ahead of time – and that’s o.k.
Can you tell me one story that just sums up why you continue to give your time and energy to Family Promise? Why will you keep volunteering this year?
Jean: Last time we hosted, when we were cleaning up, we were in the room of a family with lots of kiddos. There was a white board in the room, and one of the daughters had written: “Family 4 Life” with all the names of the family members around it. Every time something like this happens, it’s a reminder that there is no difference between me and a family that walks into Family Promise. And if we can bring them some hope until they get back on their feet, that’s what I want. Also, it’s really fun to watch the families interact. The kids like to go out and play on our playground. It’s great to get to go out and play with them. I remember watching a dad playing ping pong with his kids. That was sweet. The relationships are so genuine.
Ruth: I remember that white board note, too. It showed us how one family was cheering themselves on as a family. This initiative is all about helping them stay together without losing that special spirit that will help them into a successful future. I also love to see the wonderful interactions between older and younger kids, even among different families, since parents can be so exhausted dealing with the days they have.
Karen: One host week, we had a family of 5 here as guests. They looked just like me, my situation. And yet they have found themselves homeless. This just really sat in my heart. So many people live paycheck to paycheck, and we know that we are all just one step away from the things these families have to go through.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like the readers to know?
Jean: We get as much out of this week as the guest families. All of our volunteers feel the incredible blessing of working with our guests. It’s an incredibly rewarding program. Also, you really have to expect the unexpected.
Karen: Gumby is key. You have to be willing to flex. Also, I think sometimes the perception of homelessness can make people feel a little intimidated. We want to help our congregation understand that our guests are just like us. We aren’t here to fix everything – just to offer real hospitality to real people. Once our volunteers volunteer once, they are hooked!
Jean: Yes! And we are hoping that Sue (the Family Promise Director) will be able to speak to our congregation in January. We know she will give a really good picture of the mission of Family Promise. The timing is good, too, as it’s six weeks before our next host week. We will have time to get more volunteers signed up and working on the full spectrum of clearances. This can be challenging for our volunteers. Also in January, we are going to try to do a clearance workshop to help get more folks cleared. We hope that will remove a hurdle for those who really want to be a part of what Family Promise is doing here in Chester county.
Toward the end of our time together, I asked what their official Family Promise titles were. I assumed co-coordinators? Karen started, “Co-coordinators, yeah, I guess. But we don’t really look at it that way. We do it all, though. We’ve found it works best after a host week to go to the laundromat, so yesterday, we were there laughing and doing laundry.” Jean broke in, “We finished in two hours, made some friends for Family Promise, and encouraged the manager who has been wanting to volunteer.” Karen finished, “You never know how what you do is going to spread to someone else, and that’s why we are here.”
Indeed…that’s why we are here.
Fun Facts about this trio:
You are standing in the junk food aisle. Do you pick sweet or salty?
Jean: Salty-sweet — chocolate covered pretzels!
Karen: Salty — Funions!
Ruth: Anything! I like both.
You have a free hour. Do you pick up a book, binge on Netflix or something else entirely?
Jean: Walk my dogs or just relax and veg on my iPad.
Karen: If the weather is nice, I’m outside! Gardening! I like cleaning it all up and making it look nice.
Ruth: I grab a neighbor and go for a walk in the countryside around here. I look up at trees, birds, and jet trails!
If you could have any super power, what would it be?
Jean: To look into the future so I wouldn’t stress so much, and I would know that everything is going to work out. That would get rid of the what-ifs. The funny thing is, even without this super-power, everything always does fall into place.
Karen: To just be able to bring peace everywhere. (Jean: With your smile, you do that anyway!)
Ruth: I’d make everyone happy and healthy – and content with exactly who they are.