By Ruth Moore
Director of Lay Ministries
Champaign First UMC
CHAMPAIGN – In the span of the last decade, Austin’s Place ministry at Champaign First UMC has provided a safe and comfortable shelter to single, homeless women during the winter months.
Open from Dec. 15 to March 15, Austin’s Place houses up to eight women a night.
“I believe the opening of Austin’s Place qualified as a reorientation moment for Champaign First,” said Tom Corum, the church’s directing pastor. “When I was appointed here, the shelter was presented as integral to the mission and ministry of the church. The ministry is two-directional – guests are served on a nightly basis, but the volunteers have grown as persons and as Christian disciples. They really care about our guests and the guests know that. It’s a point of connection with others in the community who want to volunteer.”
Austin’s Place is unique in that it is operated entirely by volunteers. Co-chairpersons Kim Stanhope and Kelli Kemper and members of the steering committee are volunteers. Each evening and morning a volunteer driver transports guests. Two volunteers stay all night every night that the shelter is open. Additional volunteers do laundry, solicit and retrieve donations, help with advertising, pray, and spread the word through the community.
All volunteers are trained to better understand homelessness, especially the emotional, psychological and social consequences of homelessness. As the season unfolds, the volunteers come to know and care for guests, creating an atmosphere of acceptance and home in the shelter.
“We work hard to create a safe and warm space for our women guests, one in which they feel valued and respected as they lay their heads down to sleep,” Stanhope said. ”We realize that every day is a day of challenges for our guests and that Austin’s Place often becomes the place they call home.
Our volunteers are amazing and we could not do any of this without their caring dedication to Austin’s Place and the women we serve every night.”
In the span of the last decade, Austin’s Place has been richly blessed. Champaign First UMC provides the use of utilities, water, storage, and a van for transportation at no cost. The budget for the shelter has grown from a humble $25 donation to a generous operating balance of $10,000! This year’s budget has been provided by grants from local organizations, fundraisers, and donations from local businesses and individuals. Many of the supplies for the shelter (bedding, clothing, snacks, beverages, socks, toiletries, and bus tokens) are provided by local service organizations.
Austin’s Place partners with Courage Connection to provide a nightly screening for guests. This screening connects women with resources needed to maintain or heal their physical and mental health. It also guarantees a safe environment for guests and volunteers. The professional knowledge of the Courage Connection staff is a valuable resource as the volunteers interact with guests using patience and understanding.
The service community for the homeless has been instrumental in the record number of guests in the 2016-17 season. Besides Courage Connection, CU@Home (Phoenix Daytime Drop-in Center), The Canteen Run (run by Savoy UMC) and Centralized Intake of United Way have helped in spreading the word about Austin’s Place and aided women in feeling comfortable in coming to the shelter. Last year, Austin’s Place provided 148 beds in the entire season. As of Feb. 9, Austin’s Place has provided 192 beds and still has over a month of service left before closing their doors on March 15.
Austin’s Place is named for Austin Cloyd, a former member of Champaign First, who was active in the annual Appalachia Service Project and other local service initiatives. Austin was killed in the tragic April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University.
To find out more about current happenings with Austin’s Place check out our Facebook page or visit their website at http://shelter-austinsplace.weebly.com