Rolla and Phelps County residents turned out for a roast beef buffet and auction on Saturday evening at the Havener Center on the Missouri S&T campus to bring awareness to the homeless problem.

Rolla and Phelps County residents turned out for a roast beef buffet and auction on Saturday evening at the Havener Center on the Missouri S&T campus to bring awareness to the homeless problem. Organized by non-profit HOPE, Inc., it was the first big fundraiser of the year for the group. Concerned residents, business owners and city and state dignitaries learned about the homeless challenge, particularly as it affects young teenagers and young adults.

Alfaye Jackson, executive director, Rosalie Spencer, president, Karan Madra, vice-president of HOPE, Inc. and an army of volunteers put together a flawless evening that was centered on awareness progress and a plea to join the future of tackling a challenge, that according to many in the room, has not garnered enough attention until lately, by the community.

Attendee John Conner is a long-time resident who retired after many years of service with the U.S. Geological Survey. He has been aware of a homeless problem in Rolla for many years. He said, “It is a problem that has just been off the radar.” He said a social challenge such as homelessness takes a long time for people to wake up to the fact that there is a problem—even in a town of 20,000. “The next step should involve continued funding to develop the program,” he notes. “They’ve (HOPE, Inc.) had to jump through so many [regulatory] hoops, it’s been a real hassle—but their hearts are in the right place and that’s what’s important.”

“We have problems with homelessness not only in Rolla, but in the county,” said Gary Hicks, who drives a lot of country roads as a Phelps County commissioner. About three years ago, this organization (HOPE, Inc.) purchased a house and began to remodel, but there is so much bureaucratic red tape involved that they’ve had some trouble just setting up the program to get it up and running. This [dinner tonight] should help with the public awareness and hopefully they can build on that awareness to receive donations locally. Hicks says that for the younger homeless age group, there is no facility in Rolla other than HOPE House to serve as a refuge to help. “A lot of these kids just bounce from house to house. It’s hard to tell just how big the problem is—it’s a tough challenge.”

The evening started out with a welcome and opening prayer by elder Andrew Cassidy from the Rolla Church of Christ, followed by a proclamation read by Rolla Mayor Louis Magdits. Alfaye Jackson gave an update on HOPE, Inc.’s progress and restated the need to move forward with what is a stubbornly persistent problem in our community with few resources to address it.

Jackson noted that in 2011, HOPE, Inc. served 11 homeless students. “Five years later, we have included services to include out-reach housing for more than 75 homeless youth. Have we made any progress? Have we digressed?” she asked.  She then challenged the audience with the question, “How do we move forward?”
She introduced HOPE, Inc.’s ‘Innovative Approach Driven by Environment’ program. “It’s where we live, but more importantly how we live—the interaction with those that live with us,” she explained. “It will establish the very essence of who they are, and will determine whether or not they thrive in society.”
She says it is a faith-based program that includes education for the skills these homeless youth will need, in order to function in society. It includes changing their residential environment, giving the kids a vision of their future, positive affirmation that they are worthy of obtaining attainable goals, how to set those goals based on work ethic and managing money.

The theme of the night was not so much a mental picture of a tent city near Interstate-44, but one of stone-cold child abandonment. Jackson read a poem titled “A Child Never Forgotten” by Carylyn Autiello.

While the program continued with dinner, the Rolla Daily News mingled with the crowd to see what they thought about the evening event.

William and Martha Bowles were attending the dinner after hearing about it from HOPE, Inc. President Spencer.
“I’ve worked with youth through Girl Scouts and other youth groups in Rolla for some time, so I’ve been aware of things,” says Martha. She says they try and steer people passing through town that need help to the different organizations such as GRACE and local churches—places that try to fill their needs rather than their wants. They seemed pleased to be a part of the community in the room, coming together to raise awareness. “Without awareness, there’s no action,” said William.

Steven Pfeiffer was one attendee that was unaware of a homeless problem in Rolla. “I think we need more events like this to spread awareness and expand on programs like The Mission,” he said. He plans on spreading the word and will investigate opportunities to be involved in some way in the community.

Cara Leitz was sitting at a table with a group called Hope Crossing. They are working to build a homeless program and had asked Alfaye Jackson’s group to talk about their efforts and ways they may be able to partner. In numbers there is strength.  “We didn’t know about them and they didn’t know about us,” says Cara. They were there to support HOPE, Inc. and to be a part of this burgeoning group that wants to confront a growing problem. “It really will take the whole community.”

Eddie and Debi Schwertz heard about the HOPE, Inc. event at their church, The First Assembly of God, through vice-president Karan Madra. Debi wasn’t aware of the homeless issue in Rolla, but Eddie was aware of the problem. “Someone needs to step up and tell these children they can do it,” he says. He refers to the old adage to “rise above your raising. “They need help—they don’t know they can try.”
They both feel a commitment to do something. “I’d like to volunteer to help Alfaye with the house—it would be really wonderful.”

The featured speaker was Sundi Jo Graham, who shared her own powerful personal story of abandonment and the effect it has had on her life today. She is the founder of Esther’s House of Redemption, a residential discipleship program  where she helps women with problems.

She lived in a chaotic household with an alcoholic father and a mother that couldn’t cope with the situation leading to divorce. She was sexually abused as a young girl and raped as a teenager. She grew up feeling abandoned and alone, doing drugs and getting involved in empty relationships full of disfunction. She overate because it was one of the immediate things she could do to feel comfort and she soon ballooned to an unhealthy 300 pounds.
“Here’s the thing about abandonment—it’s ugly,” she said. “But being found by who God says we are—that trumps ugly, because that’s beautiful.”
She spoke about the difficulty of working with the downtrodden and their addictions and the obedience to God while working through her own fears and nightmares while helping others through theirs.

“We can’t fix everyone, but you do for one what you’d like to do for many. We weren’t all called to pour our lives into homeless youth, but Alfaye (Jackson) was. We weren’t all called to walk beside women in their brokenness—but I was. We get to do for one group what we can’t do for everyone.”
She said the needs are great but that a community can get involved in many ways.
“There are many roles all of us can play whether it is working in a ministry, volunteering, simply praying or giving financially. We all have the opportunity to do our part, changing lives one person at a time.”

Graham’s keynote address was followed by an auction fundraiser called by auctioneer Jim McDonough, but The Rolla Daily News wanted to touch base with Rolla’s mayor.

Mayor Magdits said, “It’s unfortunate we have homelessness in our community and it’s particularly sad because these are teenagers in their formative years.”
“Fortunately, we have a very caring and generous community as evidenced by the people here tonight, so this is a very good first start.”