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Area churches help homeless families

At Nisswa’s Lutheran Church of the Cross, volunteers put in around 300 hours in one week to help local families in homelessness get back on their feet.

Lutheran Church of the Cross is one of several area churches participating in the Path to Home, an interfaith partnership coordinated by New Pathways, a program that helps homeless families find permanent, sustainable housing.

Area churches like Lutheran Church of the Cross take turns hosting homeless families for a week at a time. Each church hosts for three or four weeks a year.

Volunteers provide three meals a day and a safe place to stay for families in need, and transportation if it’s needed.

Despite the involvement of 21 area churches, there are still gaps in the program’s calendar. New Pathways is currently seeking churches to host families.

New Pathways provides cots and mattresses for the families, along with a van, and churches provide bedding, towels, pillows and the like, as well as meals. Each family gets its own room, and volunteers also stay overnight at the church.

Ron Thorson is the volunteer coordinator for Lutheran Church of the Cross. He and five or so volunteers sat and ate dinner with two families the church hosted Thursday night, April 5.

The night before, Thorson and other volunteers had noticed a 10-month-old girl in the program had chilly feet, but she didn’t have any shoes.

“Today, she has shoes,” Thorson said. There are many stories like this one.

In addition to square meals and a place to stay, volunteers form relationships with the families that New Pathways says are very beneficial to both the families in the program and the families volunteering.

Kathy Carlson, program manager at the Brainerd chapter of New Pathways, said using the network of churches presents some challenges, but the benefits of families connecting with families makes it worth it.

It can be difficult for a struggling family to pack up and move to a new location every week, Carlson said.

“It’s a lot to ask (the moving around), but the warmth and hospitality from people in our own community outweighs the challenges,” Carlson said. “It opens up the opportunity to get to know people.”

The Path to Home does have gaps in schedules where they place the families they’re helping at hotels, but Carlson called that situation “less than ideal” compared to staying in a church and connecting with the volunteers there.

Furthermore, Carlson said, “I believe the community benefits from getting to know the families we serve.”

This was the case for Lani and Richard Popehn, who run Path to Home at Crosslake Evangelical Free Church in Crosslake (The Log Church).

“The very first time (we volunteered), we happened to meet a family and it was just a single mom and a little girl, and we just fell in love with the family. I think it just touched a part of our hearts and changed us,” Lani said.

Lani said she and her husband “live pretty well,” and the concept of what homelessness looks like in this regard really hit home.

“It changed the way we view our own lives, the way we view people that are struggling, less fortunate or hitting bumps in their lives,” she said.

New Pathways has helped 215 families since 2005, including 288 adults and 397 children. They can house up to 18 people at a time, but Carlson said they have been forced to turn families away.

New Pathways has a 90 percent success rate in getting the families it helps back into permanent, sustainable housing.

In June, New Pathways will hold its annual Tent City fundraiser, which seeks to raise awareness for homelessness. The event will be at the Northland Arboretum in Brainerd and includes games and speakers. For more information, contact New Pathways at 218-454-0460.