Jeff Wilhite had been active in the community for years but had never heard of Family Promise of Summit County when he learned the agency was looking for a new executive director.
“It was one of those things that come along in life, and you learn about, and it is a ‘wow’ moment,” said Wilhite, who has been executive director of the nonprofit agency that helps homeless families for about two months. He replaced former Executive Director Pamela Betty, who resigned last year.
In a way, the agency — formed in 2003 as The Interfaith Hospitality Network and renamed Family Promise of Summit County a few years ago — had been operating under the radar, even though an army of 1,500 volunteers who cook meals and drive vans among other tasks had been helping take care of homeless families at 12 area congregations for 10 years.
Part of the reason the agency might not enjoy a great deal of name recognition, Wilhite said, is that the volunteers are not working countless hours to beef up their resumes. They are doing silent service to those in need, he said.
“It is a life mission for these folks,” he said. “People are doing this because they believe.”
Wilhite is preparing to launch a drive to raise $1.4 million to move the agency to a bigger family center that would allow it to better serve homeless families, create an endowment and set up a micro-loan fund that could provide up to $5,000 to help clients launch a small business.
He also wants to nearly double the number of host churches so that twice as many homeless families can receive care.
Wilhite, 52, said he “absolutely fell in love with the program” when he researched it and learned about the services it provides.
Since 2010, the number of requests for help has increased by 77 percent from families, he said.
The agency in 2012 housed 42 different families with 162 family members — meeting about one-tenth of the demand for help requested.
As of early April, the agency in 2013 already had served 52 families representing 67 parents and 107 children, Wilhite said.
The program moves beds from one church to another church over a 12-week rotation. Families spend the night for a week at a time before moving to the next congregation.
During the day, clients spend the day at the organization’s family center, at 77 W. Miller Ave., in the cramped former parsonage of Miller Avenue United Church of Christ.
While there, social workers help the clients find housing and assist them with other issues.
Along with the 12 host congregations, there are also “support congregations.”
Wilhite is talking to three new congregations that have expressed an interest in being part of a second rotation of host congregations and is looking for up to six more congregations that might want to help as hosts and others that might want to serve in support roles.
He hopes to find an existing building of between 7,500 and 10,000 square feet to buy or lease as a new Family Center.
The Rev. David Loar, pastor of Fairlawn West United Church of Christ, one of the host congregations, thinks Family Promise will flourish under Wilhite’s direction.
“He is bringing a lot of good ideas on how to broaden the role of Family Promise to meet the ongoing, and sadly growing, reality of homeless families, especially among the working poor,” Loar said.
Wilhite’s goal is to bring to central Summit County a new facility large enough to store supplies that are given to families, house a possible food pantry, host various educational classes for families and provide computer access so that children could complete school work while adults look for employment.
A key goal is for more collaboration with existing agencies, from day care and educational facilities to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, to better assist the homeless families.
“You go about your business and you may have an idea of homelessness and you never stop and think there are families that are homeless,” Wilhite said.
A waiting list of families wishing to take part in the program exists, Wilhite said. The average length of stay for a family — mother and father and children or single moms and dads with children — is 45 days.
The agency received a $33,000 grant to buy a second van to transport a second rotation of families last year from the Northern Ohio Golf Charities, but the grant was contingent upon the group signing up enough host congregations to double in size.
Wilhite said the agency was unable to meet those terms. It will seek the grant again in the future.
Salvation Army and Family Promise are the only agencies that serve the homeless that serve entire homeless families and keep them together, he said.
Wilhite wants to grow the agency’s annual budget beyond its current $170,000 to add a volunteer coordinator, a development and marketing worker to help raise money from area foundations and a part-time maintenance worker for the new building. His salary is $55,000 a year.
A Roman Catholic, Wilhite said his faith is a large part of his life.
“My real salary or reward through my work at Family Promise will be successfully finding a new home for the organization, stabilizing the financial footing for the organization and collaborating with other organizations to offer our families sustainable and lifelong independence so their families can thrive,” he said.
“Family Promise is a beautiful program with many different denominations working toward one goal. To a person involved, they are living their faith by making this program work and helping families in need.”
Wilhite said he has never done work as important as he is doing now.
“I have met Nobel laureates, inventors of world renown, I have sat with the president of the United States,” he said. “But this is the most exciting, meaningful thing I have ever done in my life.”
And he said he hopes there is a new understanding of the plight of the homeless because of the work of Family Promise.
“But for the grace of God, that could be me,” he said of his compassion to help the homeless.
A Family Promise network-wide meeting and dinner will be held at 6:30 p.m. May 11 at First Congregational Church of Hudson. Cost is $5.
To register, call 330-253-8081 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the agency, go to http://familypromisesc.org/.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.