by: Jennifer Burchett
It started the night before we opened. It was Thursday, September 28th, and the sparkling clean halls and freshly painted walls of the newly renovated building at 301 South E Street shone proudly with all the years of planning that had made this moment a reality.
It had been a long day, full of rushing around, arranging things, sifting through the flurry of intake packets necessary for HOPE Campus to hit the ground running. Day one was less than twelve hours away, and the staff and I were in great spirits. Despite all of the commotion, laughter and the chemistry of a team working together toward something special could also be heard. You just had to be there.
Long before we worked as a team, there were community leaders who spent tireless hours raising funds, filing paperwork, and raising over three million dollars to buy and renovate the building where we now stood. It was as if their effort lingered in every inch of the old furniture warehouse. We all felt it. A symbol of the outcome we sought for our clients, they had taken the old building and made it anew.
We could have stayed for hours longer to prepare for a very busy first day, but instead we packed up and called it a night, cradling all our carefully prepared documents. We were ready to help, ready to make Fort Smith a better place for everyone. The reality of the numbers behind all that paperwork acted as fuel to our fire.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22.1% of the 127,793 residents of Sebastian County live in poverty. 28,242 people in Sebastian County live a paycheck away from homelessness. In Fort Smith, 35.8% of adults live in poverty, compared to the national poverty rate of 12.7%.
Social service nonprofits are a tricky bunch. What is the key to helping without teaching helplessness? The trick to offering support without enabling? It’s a big undertaking, one that the founding minds of HOPE Campus studied well, dating back to 2009.
In preparation for a facility that would address the rise of homelessness on the streets of Fort Smith, The Old Fort Homeless Coalition commissioned an expert to perform an analysis of the city. He determined that the most effective approach to social services in Fort Smith would be for organizations to band together. Community leaders decided to adopt a campus-model approach and included a dormitory, men’s and women’s showers, Mercy Clinic, a dentistry office, a hair salon, a library, a community room, a classroom, a laundry room, a clothes closet, a cafeteria, and a full-service kitchen that now provides over 200 meals a day to anyone in need.
You just had to be there. It had been a long road, one that guided the staff and I to a method that teaches self-sufficiency over helplessness, treats the entire person with dignity, not shame, and seeks to heal the whole of an individual with therapeutic treatment, not merely Band-Aids.
As we were about to walk out the door on the night of September 28th, the staff and I looked through the window at just the right time to see three people knocking on the front doors. Two of them were children. We let them in, and nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
On all of their faces were smiles and enthusiasm like I had never seen. Here was an organization that would offer sustainable help, segues to upward mobility. A place without judgment. HOPE had finally arrived.
Our doors are now open. Scattered up and down the halls of HOPE Campus are homeless and impoverished individuals seeking help. They are dirty, and at times a slight musk hangs in the air, but never before has 301 South E Street shone so brightly.
To walk in the footsteps of those who came before us is to do our jobs successfully. We take the broken, the run down, the dirty, and breathe life back into their chests. Just as our sturdy building stands strong, so too do our clients have it in them to begin again.
Perhaps all nonprofits are Band-Aids. Sometimes that’s all people need. But Band-Aids don’t bring about quality care. With a poverty rate of over 25% in Fort Smith alone, we need quality treatment. Poverty is not an individual problem, but a community affliction that we must work together to heal.
After all my time working for nonprofits, it’s not the question of effective services that rings loudest, but instead, why our community has a need for such a nonprofit in the first place. Let us brave the future by asking ourselves the real questions, for then we can truly stand together and breathe hope back into our old, rugged, beautiful city. Visit hopecampus.org for more information.
Jennifer Burchett was born and raised in Lubbock, Texas, home of tumbleweeds, cowboys, and beautiful sunsets. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology, she went to work in the nonprofit sector while also writing her first novel. Now, two novels, three children, and several short stories later, Jennifer lives in Fort Smith with her husband. Her interests include community development, behavior, music, and spending time with her family.