“Well, I’m an older-than-dirt, single father.”
That was the icebreaker FRESH Start guest Don began with during a 45-minute conversation about his journey to LCCM’s FRESH Start Emergency Shelter and Resource Center with his son, Malachi.
“I have a 15-year-old son who I have been the sole source of everything to since he just turned four,” Don said.
And being a single father certainly came with hardships.
“We lost our house, we lost everything,” he said. “Every God-loving thing, but the shirt on my back. But, I don’t give up.”
Don once operated a construction company and had contracts in the Baltimore, Md. area where he would travel to from Lehigh County each day.
But by 2012, Don hit some stumbling blocks.
“I was pretty well out of sorts. I was a mess, I was a wreck,” he said. “I was physically a wreck, emotionally, mentally – I was just totally drained. I had nothing really more to offer, or to give or to do.”
By the next year, he no longer operated the construction company and become involved in a criminal case that resulted in jail time, at which time his son was placed in foster care.
When he was released from jail, he quickly regained custody of his son, but he struggled to rebuild.
That’s when he began attending Berks County Veteran Affairs programs. Don, an Army veteran, was pleasantly surprised by what the VA had to offer.
“A whole lot of my missions were in East Berlin (Germany),” he said. “I left with a mega case of PTSD and some other stuff that will never go away, but it’s being managed.”
Because of his experience at the VA, Don wanted to do something to help other veterans.
“I’m thinking to myself, well, if I didn’t know about this (VA programs), I can’t be the only one,” he said. “How can we make other veterans aware?”
That is when he started the Sal Santori Radio Show, devoted to veterans and veterans’ issues, which aired in Lebanon, Pittsburgh and Spartanburg, WV. Though the show is on hiatus, Don has plans to kickstart it again next year.
For now, he’s focusing on a strategy to rebuild a life for himself and his son.
After a stay with friends in Palmyra that didn’t work out, Don and Malachi briefly stayed at a hotel room in Palmyra. That’s when a Caring Cupboard employee approached him and asked if he would be willing to accept some help from LCCM’s FRESH Start shelter.
Since coming to FRESH Start in early October, Don obtained a job in Palmyra, which he said he saw “God’s hand” working in to provide him this opportunity.
Last year he worked security for a plant that was under construction in Palmyra. A few weeks ago, a temp agency that hires for that company asked if he’d be interested in working there.
“They wanted to offer me a forklift position somewhere, but it wasn’t enough money. And then they said, well, we have this other company up in Palmyra, and I said ‘what did you say!”
He started his new position in late October, and now wants to find a home in the Palmyra area so his son can continue attending Palmyra Area School District.
“I told Malachi that we have spent years on the survival plane. Now we’re going to experience the living plane,” he said. “So my picture is a much more comfortable lifestyle for him and more things that will give him a better quality life. And living in a place of our choosing.”
Long term, he wants to help his son realize his dreams.
“He wants to become a forensic chemist and forensic scientist,” he said, proudly. “I said, ‘you go, boy!’”
Don says he is thankful to everyone involved with the Fresh Start program and highly recommends single fathers to utilized this resource to get a “fresh start.”
2020 has been a year like no other. Early on, we admit the pandemic had us worried. But the community rallied around the guests at Lebanon County Christian Ministries by partnering with us to ensure no one went hungry or without shelter during what is arguably the most difficult and uncertain year of our lives.
We thank you so much for your support.
Now that it’s Christmas, we thought this would be a good time to tell you 12 ways you made a difference for guests of LCCM.
1. Food distribution
Thanks to your support, LCCM was able to distribute a total of 354,051 pounds of food in all its food programs. That includes providing 1,721 vouchers for emergency food orders to households in Lebanon County.
2. Free noon meals
Your support made it possible for LCCM to serve 51,363 free noon meals. Before the pandemic, LCCM served an average of 130 free noon meals daily. Every day since the start of the pandemic, it's been anywhere between 150 to 283 meals. Our guests include men, women and children of all ages.
The scope of volunteer involvement at LCCM is breathtaking. Our volunteers served 40,612 hours in all programs. When the pandemic began, LCCM also saw a surge in new volunteers, who worked alongside of our veteran volunteers, and all worked tirelessly to serve many people.
Your support has made it possible to provide a daily meal to people like John, who was laid off from his job at the start of the pandemic. “It’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s had a very big impact.”
Vanessa used the food pantry at LCCM one time in the past, and that was after the birth of her son 15 years ago. But when she and her husband were both laid off at the start of the pandemic, she turned to LCCM again to feed her family of five. “God has been good to us,” she said. “I just feel hopeful.”
Because of you, LCCM's FRESH Start Emergency Shelter & Resource Center was able to provide 4,204 nights of stay to 126 guests.
7. Hurdles to Housing fundraiser
COVID-19 changed a lot of things, including how we fundraise. Our traditional event could not be held in person, so we instead created a virtual experience called Hurdles to Housing. Between a barbecue fundraiser and the virtual fundraiser, families and church teams raised $10,000 for the shelter!
Here are 5 things you should know about homelessness in Lebanon County
8. Mindy and Jayvion
Mindy says FRESH Start helped bring order and stability to her life so that she could create a better life for her 2-year-old son. "I really didn’t have a support system growing up, so having that here was very, very special to me," she said.
9. Kelsey and AJ
Kelsey says the staff at FRESH Start provide her the compassion and accountability she needs while she secures child care, a job and housing for her and her 3-year-old son, AJ.
10. Clothing bank
Thanks to your in-kind donations, LCCM was able to provide 19,567 clothing items, including coats, hats and gloves, to 845 adults and 620 children in Lebanon County.
So many churches, businesses and organizations went above and beyond to help LCCM this year. There are too many acts of compassion to mention here, but we'll provide one example. Strickler Insurance employees who volunteered at LCCM's noon meal couldn't help but notice we didn't have a dishwasher, so they held a fundraiser and bought one!
12. YOU CHANGED LIVES
When the pandemic hit, we admit that we worried. But you showed us we had no reason to. God provided everything LCCM needed through the hands and feet in our community - you. Because of you, lives were changed.
For years, Kelsey struggled with unstable housing, couch surfing from home to home.
But when she found out she was pregnant, she knew she had to make a change.
That’s when she came to LCCM’s former shelter and resource center, HOPES, which was located on North Ninth Street in Lebanon.
She was only there for a couple of weeks before she left. She didn’t realize it then, but the shelter was about to play a prominent role in her life after the birth of her son.
Still struggling to find a stable housing environment, she sought refuge at FRESH Start Emergency Shelter and Resource Center when her son AJ was just two weeks old.
'It's about my son:' Single mom credits FRESH Start with changing her life, helping to provide stability for toddler
As a new mom, Kelsey arrived during the grand opening of FRESH Start in 2017 when operations were moved from the downtown Lebanon location to the LCCM building.
When you give to LCCM, you're changing lives like Kelsey's and AJ's. Help us continue doing vital work in the community as we provide emergency services such as food and shelter, as well as guidance, support and stability to adults and children in Lebanon County. We do this always in Christ's name.
It was at FRESH Start where staff members fell in love with AJ.
“He’s like their baby,” she said.
Having been in the shelter for close to nine months, AJ experienced a lot of firsts.
“He learned how to crawl in here and everything,” she said. “Trying to get him to walk, sit up, all those little first things, he did here.”
Kelsey said staff became more like family and helped encourage her and build her confidence.
“From being here for as long as I was, we kind of formed that relationship, that bond,” she said. “They were so straightforward with me. If it weren’t for them breathing down my neck, I don’t think I would have been able to do what I had done in the amount of time that I did it!”
She got a job at Kmart as a cashier and was quickly promoted to a supervisor position. She saved money and was able to move out of the shelter in early 2018 with AJ and moved in with a family friend.
She soon found out she was pregnant with her daughter, Olivia. After the birth of her daughter, she returned to work, but was having financial difficulties and granted her mother partial custody of her daughter.
She ended up having to move again, and this time it was in the Ebenzer area, right outside of Lebanon. She had to leave her job because she couldn’t drive or find a babysitter for AJ.
They lived at this residence for about two years, but due to a change in the rental’s ownership, she and AJ had to move out.
She was welcomed back to FRESH Start with open arms in October with AJ - now a vibrant and very active 3-year-old – so she has time to rebuild her life again.
Kelsey hopes to return to retail work in Lebanon to save money and get steady housing.
Her hope for the future is that she can build a life that will allow AJ to flourish in school and lead a happy, healthy life.
'It's about my son': Single mom credits FRESH Start with changing her life, helping to provide stability for toddler
Mindy lives across the street from Lebanon County Christian Ministries, but not too long ago, she lived at LCCM’s FRESH Start Emergency Shelter & Resource Center.
Prior to arriving at FRESH Start in August 2018 with her son, Jayvion, who at the time was just a few months old, the 27-year-old’s life involved a mix of drug use, unstable housing and unemployment.
She wanted a better life, but the baggage from her past followed her into FRESH Start and cut her time short because she was, as she describes it, “defiant.”
When she left, she slid back into old patterns of struggling to hold down a job and keeping up with rent payments.
Once homeless, FRESH Start shelter staffer how helps others get back on their feet
After a year of struggling, she knew she couldn’t do it by herself anymore. That’s when she turned to FRESH Start again.
When you give to LCCM, you're changing lives like Mindy's and Jayvion's. Help us continue doing vital work in the community as we provide emergency services such as food and shelter, as well as guidance, support and stability to adults and children in Lebanon County. We do this always in Christ's name.
“I was out of my addiction. I wasn’t getting high anymore,” she said. “This time around my son was over a year old. It was time to get myself together for my son’s sake. It’s not about me anymore. It’s about my son.”
Mindy says she grew up in foster care, group homes and spent time in residential treatment centers for youth.
“I grew up in the system,” she said. “I got taken away from my parents when I was little and I didn’t want my son to go through that. I don’t want what I went through to affect my son.”
Being homeless is stressful, she said, but as a single mother, she lived with the nagging thought that she could somehow lose Jayvion because of it.
“My biggest fear was not finding me and my son a place to live,” she said. “My biggest fear was my son getting taken away. That was my biggest fear. What if I don’t find a place?”
When Mindy and Jayvion returned to FRESH Start, it wasn’t without some bumps.
“I had my rounds with staff and difficulties, but at the end of the day, they saw the improvement I was making, taking care of my child, not doing drugs, looking for a job,” she said. “I got my child daycare. On top of that before I came back, I got accepted for Section 8 housing, but the COVID-19 situation meant I had to wait a while to try to find a place because it wasn't’ getting anywhere.”
Due to COVID-19, Mindy’s stay at FRESH Start lasted 7 months, but it may have been a blessing in disguise.
The staff at FRESH Start played a huge role in her life by offering accountability, stability and emotional support as she learned new skills in how to make it on her own.
“I really didn’t have a support system growing up, so having that here was very, very special to me,” she said. “They showed me how to apply for (day care), they taught me how to be independent and how to do things on my own. They taught me computer skills because I had to look up jobs and apartments...they taught me food shopping. I had to do all that on my own. They taught me how to save money. You have to put your money to good use when you’re on your own.”
Mindy wants to build on her independence and has a dream going to college and earning a degree in business to open her own clothing store one day. She has a dream for her son, too.
“I want him to grow up happy, grow up healthy and grow up to get an education,” she said. “I want him to be way better than I was.”