By Erika Webb
Two Neighborhood Center employees and a volunteer recently stood in the middle of a kitchen talking about wall colors and cabinets as though lives are at stake.
For 44 years, The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia, a United Way Partner Agency, in DeLand, has worked to put broken lives back together. And more need has brought forth even more effort.
With the recent acquisition of Heart House, Neighborhood Center employees, volunteers and community partners are striving to bring more people home.
Through a monumental fundraising campaign the center hopes to have the four-unit apartment complex in DeLand ready for families in a couple of months.
Nearly 60,000 Floridians lived on the street or stayed in emergency shelters every day in 2011. Florida has the third largest population of homeless persons of any state in the nation, according to the state's Council on Homelessness Report.
Susan Clark, the executive director for The Neighborhood Center said this will be the first multi-family emergency shelter in West Volusia County.
But she doesn't like the word shelter. She prefers the word home.
"Think about when they walk into Heart House," Ms. Clark said. "Visualize with us: they walk in and there are beds in the bedrooms. They walk into the kitchen and there's a table. Mom's cooking."
Heart House was bought for $34,000 through a short sale. It is at 114 W. Walts Ave. in DeLand, behind The Neighborhood Center.
Situated on a large corner lot, Heart House contains two three-bedroom apartments downstairs and two one-bedroom apartments upstairs.
Many members of the community have already offered support.
Donations provided the funds to buy the property and initial renovations. Realtor Sonni Stover declined a commission for related real estate services. An anonymous donor has offered $25,000, provided the gift is matched by other supporters. People Helping People, a community service foundation created by Stetson faculty and staff, contributed substantially to buying the property. Betty Johnson, former director of the Stetson University Library, made it possible to begin renovations right away with a $25,000 gift. Ed Lacey, a local, retired business executive, who is responsible for the development of the Lacey House for single women at the Neighborhood Center, also contributed a leadership gift to get the project started.
Several local professionals are providing goods and services to the mission at reduced or no cost. John Freeland is making cabinets for free. Doug Richards of Richards Development Group is providing pro bono general contracting work, and is providing roofing at a reduced cost. All Quality Products is providing materials at reduced costs.
Even with that kind of outpouring, more is needed.
Ms. Clark envisions landscaping and a playground for kids. Other essentials include furniture, kitchen items, bed and bath linens, all of the necessities, and some niceties, that turn a space into a home.
"You know how it is when you go home, when I go home. Even in my office, I try to make it comfortable," Ms. Clark said. "Think about being homeless. Sometimes they stay in their vehicles for days or more. Just picture that."
Ms. Clark said everything at The Neighborhood Center is heart related. There is A Garden with Heart where a couple, who lived in the center's family house for several months, returned to get married.
"We have a lot of stories here," she said.
Like the one of a 78-year-old woman who had been living with her daughter. Ms. Clark said she doesn't know what happened, but the woman ended up without a place to stay.
"We were able to open the door and she's with us now," Ms. Clark said.
Because The Neighborhood Center is a private, not-for-profit agency, there is no approval-seeking process when it comes to who gets help.
"We make the decisions," Ms. Clark said. "We have the ability to meet the needs of anyone who walks in the door. We'll never turn anyone away for food. And we'll even give them shelter if they're on their way someplace and they need a place to stay."
Patrick Vandivier, the housing director for The Neighborhood Center, said he anticipates Heart House to be complete and move-in ready around the end of January.
Housing programs at the center include emergency housing, which provides immediate overnight shelter for those in crisis; transitional housing is a provisional, fee-for-service program available to single men and women who must remain drug and alcohol free, seek employment and meet with a caseworker once weekly; the Lacey House for single women with children offers emergency and transitional housing in addition to counseling; and family housing for a period of time up to one year. Families are encouraged to address issues to restore the solvency of the family unit.
"We house 30 to 40 people on any given day," Ms. Clark said. "And we've always had a waiting list for our family house."
Other services include the emergency food bank, daily food pantry, emergency bill assistance as well as counseling and referral services.
Since 1969 when two West Volusia women formed this "grassroots effort" to help people in need, The Neighborhood Center has been solely supported by West Volusia residents and business owners, Ms. Clark said.
"That's why it's important that West Volusians circle their wagons around this project," she said.
Heart House Committee members Ann Colwell, Gary Maris and Ed Lacey along with Ms. Clark are available to make presentations about Heart House to community organizations.
Pledges to The Heart House project can be made online at www.neighborhoodcenterwv.org/hearthousecampaign, by mail or in person to The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia, 434 S. Woodland Blvd., DeLand, FL 32720.
For more information about The Heart House project, call Ms. Clark at 386-734-8120 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.