“We’re seeing an increase in calls on behalf of people who are homeless and need assistance which tells you there is still a great need in our community,” the network director of the nonprofit organization said. “I’m glad Family Promise and other charities are here to help them, but on the other side of the coin, it’s sad to see the need is still great.”
Family Promise of Bradley County is part of a national organization originally formed in New Jersey by Karen Olson, who helped homeless families in her community. The local chapter sprang up through a ministry of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.
Since the local chapter began forming in late 2009, it has grown to a network of eight regular volunteers who assist with daily operations and about 350 more who donate their time through one of the 10 host churches or six or seven support congregations. Each week a different host congregation provides overnight accommodations and meals. During the day, the families go to the day center at 1110 Norman Chapel Road where they are provided showers, transportation and help with obtaining employment and permanent housing.
Stewart is about two months into his tenure as network director of the local chapter. Prior to applying for this job, he worked as a case manager for two different agencies in the Family’s First program, which is Tennessee’s welfare program. His goal in the welfare system was to help adults raise themselves from poverty.
Between agencies, Stewart was employed by United Way of Greater Chattanooga as a fundraiser for all the nonprofits in the area.
“What got me started in social work was a program called Upward Bound aimed at helping low-income and at-risk high school students. Our goal was to get them to be the first generation of college students in their families and to help them break that chain of poverty,” he said.
As network director, he is again working with parents to help get them and their children out of poverty, which fell in line with his previous employment experiences and his faith.
“I’ve been doing social work with the economically disadvantaged for the last 12 years, but in the last year I had been thinking about the ministry,” he said. “My father is a retired Methodist minister and I’ve thought about the ministry, but I didn’t want to preach from a pulpit.”
Instead, he sought a way to combine social services with ministry.
“That’s exactly what Family Promise is and when this opportunity came along, I had to at least see if I could do it,” Stewart said. “Families First was a federal and state program so you couldn’t bring the faith aspect into it.”
Family Promise is a 501(c)3, but it is faith-based in the sense that it works with churches and “we do consider ourselves a ministry.”
As the pool of dollars has shrunk over the past few years and the competition for funding has stiffened, it is no longer enough for an agency to work with people.
“With funding, it’s outcome driven. Are you really making a difference in what you are doing,” he said. “We ask ourselves what are we doing to make people successful and what do we need to do and what do we need to do better?”
For instance, Family Promise’s goal is immediate housing for its clients and long-term stability. Once a family moves into permanent housing, Stewart will maintain contact with them through a 12-month after-care period. A family should be OK if it survives the first 12 months, but if the family is hit with unexpected expenses within the first year, Family Promise will still help.
“If I put you in housing and three months later you have to come back to me because you are homeless, then I missed something. My goal is not just to get you in housing. My goal is to get you into housing and never come back to the shelter situation,” he said. “If you come back to me in three to six months, I didn’t address something that would keep you in permanent housing. That is a piece that keeps me awake at night when I’m working with these families.
“I always tell my families when I meet them for the first time, I hope I never see you again as a client, but I want to see you as a friend.”
Stewart tries to go home after work to his wife, Rachel, and three sons — Will, Sawyer and Ben — and leave the day behind him in his office and rely on volunteers to pick up the slack in the evening hours.
“What you want to do is shut it down at five or six o’clock and not take it home with you, but you do,” he said. “When I get home, I have about three hours with my three children and Rachel when I give them my full attention, my full effort and my full love. But once they are settled and go to sleep and they’re down for the night, my mind starts wandering back to our families.”
The families are sleeping in a church where they don’t know anybody and his phone number is the one that would be called in case of an emergency.
“It’s tough because I do get really attached to these families and I do worry about them and I do wake up in the middle of the night wondering if they are OK because they are sleeping in a church who are strangers,” he said.
Compartmentalization is not easy for him and he relies heavily on his faith. Each night on his way home, he repeats a short prayer, “Lord help me when I get home to give my three boys and my wife the care they need. Once they’re OK and down for the night, then I start thinking about my families again.
“But, faith starts at home. How can I be a servant to others if I don’t take care of my own family? I have to start it at home and I have to remember that.”
Stewart was born in Bristol and raised in Tennessee and Virginia, though he never stayed anywhere longer than five years growing up. He earned a bachelor’s degtree in business from Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va. His wife, the former Rachel Cheek, is from Athens. Her father is a former president of Tennessee Wesleyan College.