Podcast Episode: Dorothy Day House

If you are following my podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud (Look to See Me by Chris Pepple), you can find some of the transcripts of my episodes here.

Dorothy Day House Memphis

Hi, Listeners! I hope you are all having a wonderful week this week. Welcome back to Look to See Me, a podcast that invites you to look closer at the lives of people around you and to take time to hear their stories. I’m Chris Pepple and today I’m going to talk about some people who are changing the lives of homeless families—specifically I’m going to talk about the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Memphis.

First, however, I’m going to give you a short history of the woman the organization is named for. Dorothy Day was an American journalist, social activist, and Catholic convert. She was born in New York in 1897 and was the 3rdchild to Grace and John Day. Her father was a sportswriter and moved his family to San Francisco in 1904 when he took a job with a newspaper there. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed the paper’s facilities there, and he lost his job, but out of that tragedy, Dorothy saw acts of kindness by her mother and their neighbors who all stepped up to help others during this crisis in their city. Those self-sacrificing acts planted the seeds in Dorothy Day’s mind that would later lead her to help others in times of need.

Her passion for bringing change to what seemed like desperate situations led her to become part of a circle of social radicals and literary types like Eugene O’Neill during World War I. Eventually she faced jail time for her actions in 1917 when she and a group of suffragettes were demonstrating at the White House in favor of giving women voting rights.

Though Day’s parents were not deeply religiously, they did have some ties to Christianity. It’s said, though, that Day rejected religion because she did not see people who worshipped regularly doing anything to serve the people in need. Day eventually embraced the Catholic faith and admired the Catholic church for being “the Church of the poor.”  In 1926, Day gave birth to her daughter Tamar and faced life as a single mother as she worked as a freelance journalist. Her decision to have her daughter baptized and embrace the Catholic faith led to the end of her common law marriage and the loss of many of her radical friends.

In 1932, when she was covering the Hunger March in Washington, D.C., she prayed that some way would open up for her to serve the poor and unemployed. The next day she met Peter Maurin. They worked together to start the “Catholic Worker” newspaper which spawned a movement of houses of hospitality and farming communes that has since been replicated throughout the nation and in other countries.

You can read more about her life in a book by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy titled Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. Her life story is fascinating, and I’m just giving you a glimpse of all of the work she did for others during her lifetime. But know that she spent her entire life trying to make a difference in this world—trying to help bring hope to others.

That’s what the Dorothy Day House in Memphis does today. The mission of the Dorothy Day House is to keep homeless families together as they are struggling to try to get back on their feet and regain some hope financially.

We know that people can become homeless for many reasons: lost jobs or under-employment, overwhelming medical bills or other unplanned for expenses, or generational poverty. Being homeless is traumatic for everyone involved. Adding to the stress of the situation, however, is the design of many typical shelters. When families are trying to get out of the heat or cold and find a safe place to rest, they often have to separate. Many shelters only allow one gender to be housed on site, so fathers have to leave daughters and wives; mothers have to leave sons and husbands. This separation means that they aren’t together to try to work through possible solutions to their financial challenges.

The Dorothy Day house steps in whenever possible and offers a safe place for families to live together so they can stay strong as a family unit and support each other as they work to move forward and overcome the obstacles hindering them because of their poverty.

So, what does this living situation look like? The parents and children now have a home-like atmosphere—they have a sense of security—and in this place, they all have responsibilities such as helping to clean the house and prepare meals. The organization has two houses, serving three families in each house.

Their second house opened in May 2018 and is named in memory of Loretta Garland, a woman who lived in the Dorothy Day House with her teenage son. They became homeless because the factory Loretta worked in for 20 years closed with no warning. While at the house, Loretta got a new job at FedEx and was just about to move out when she died suddenly of a stroke on April 15, 2013.

The families at the Dorothy Day House are very diverse. The organization serves families of different sizes, ages, religions, and ethnicities. As I mentioned earlier, many things can cause sudden homelessness: a house fire, the death or sudden absence of the main wage earner, the expense of medical bills, a car accident or other unexpected circumstances.

Today, almost half of American families live paycheck to paycheck. Any setback can cause serious financial challenges with long-term effects. We also have to understand the effects of generational poverty. Many parents don’t have the emotional, mental or physical tools needed to make changes for their families and pull themselves out of poverty. Dorothy Day understood this in her time. Many people don’t have support systems in place to help move them out of a crisis situation and into a stable living situation. Dorothy Day reminded us that we were called to love others. She said, though, that we had to get over our fear of others in order to get close enough to love them.

The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality is loving families and bringing them hope. The organization is funded by private donations from individuals. Donors give annually, as needed for projects, or on a monthly-basis. Each gift, of any amount, is important to the sustainability of the ministry. The Dorothy Day House depends entirely on monetary and in-kind donations from private donors and charitable organizations. We receive no federal, state, or local assistance.

Their website—dorothydaymemphis.org—lists the specific needs they have at any particular time. Sometimes they need diapers if they are serving families with infants; sometimes they need shoes of a specific size or maybe clothes or furniture. Their Facebook page also keeps donors updated on specific needs. And of course, cash is always appreciated.

When I was in interim children’s director at a local church, I was filling in over a summer and decided to use some of our monetary donations from our VBS program to support the home. I met Sister Maureen Griner who is the Executive Director and part of their ministry team to families. I was able to hear more of the stories of the hope that this organization brings to our community. It’s truly an inspiring organization with volunteers who mentor the kids and cook meals and step in to help deep clean at times.

Here are a few of the ways the Dorothy Day house staff, volunteers and support agencies in the community serve the families in their care—they provide:

  • Food, clothing, and shelter
  • Educational resources and guidance
  • Parenting skills
  • Employment counseling
  • Prospective job contacts
  • Transportation
  • Referrals for child care
  • Financial and budgeting advice
  • Counseling and case management services
  • Advocacy and mentoring
  • Access to sources of permanent housing
  • New personal relationships which provide a system of healthy support and encouragement for the future.

The first family moved into the Dorothy Day house is 2006. This ministry is still expanding.

Here’s your challenge for the week: look around your community and find organizations that have a similar mission. See if you can locate groups working to keep homeless family members together. Help get their story out in your community—share their social media posts or show up at events that are fundraisers for that organization.

Fighting homelessness takes a team effort, but we can help bring hope and change to families trying to overcome poverty. A safe home makes a difference.

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of my Look to See Me podcast and will return for the next episode.

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Podcast Episode: The Jasmine Center

If you are following my podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud (Look to See Me by Chris Pepple), you can find some of the transcripts of my episodes here.

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Hi, Listeners! I hope you are all having a wonderful week this week. Welcome back to Look to See Me, a podcast that invites you to look closer at the lives of people around you and to take time to hear their stories. I’m Chris Pepple and today I’m going to talk about something a little different. In past episodes, I have talked about community groups and nonprofit groups that have been in existence for several years. I could give you a little history on the organization and a glimpse of their programs.

A few weeks ago, though, I ran into a woman and overheard her conversation about her plans for a new nonprofit organization. Now, remember that I’m a writer…being a writer means I’m always listening when I’m out in public. It’s how I learn new things about my community, about people around me, about our world.  I stop listening if I realize that people are talking about something extremely personal, but if I’m around people just chatting about life or work or interests, I love to look busy and keep listening.

In this instance, I decided to confess to the woman that I was eavesdropping. I introduced myself and gave her my contact information. I told her I would love to hear more about the project she was working on. I’m glad she was willing to check out my website and see that I wasn’t crazy. And she was willing to answer questions for me.

I wanted to know more about how an organization that aims to serve our community gets a start—how do you tackle large societal issues such as homelessness, poverty, and abuse when you are starting with just a vision? Here’s what I learned from a woman named Timishia Ortiz who is the founder and CEO of The Jasmine Center in Memphis, Tennessee. And please forgive me if my “Southernness” is mispronouncing her beautiful name.

Ortiz was graciously open to sharing her life story, so we can glimpse her background and see the perspective she is coming from when she had the vision to start The Jasmine Center. She was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a father who was a radiologist and a mother who was a stay-at-home parent. When she lost her dad at age seven to heart disease, her mother relocated the family to Memphis.

Ortiz’s life changed when she had to face the pain of domestic abuse in her own marriage. She faced a very rocky divorce while living in Nashville. Now many of you may not understand how challenging it can be for mothers to maneuver though Tennessee’s court system. The process takes an enormous emotional and financial toll on the people going through the courts. Nothing is easy even when you are the victim. In Tennessee, court costs and lawyer fees add up quickly. I can tell you that from personal experience. As so often happens, Ortiz and her children were homeless for a time. When she first left in order to be safe, she and her children stayed in a hotel for a few days. But she was a stay-at-home mother without income to sustain a long stay in a hotel.

When Ortiz tried to reach out to an agency for temporary government assistance, the woman assisting her with the paperwork asked for an address. When Ortiz gave a hotel address, the woman then declared that Ortiz and her children were homeless. That was a reality she had trouble naming or accepting. She used what little funds she had left to get to Memphis where her mother and brother lived. Unfortunately, neither had the resources to help her financially. Actually, her mother was being evicted from the house she was staying in because she was unable to keep up the rental payments. So, Ortiz felt truly homeless.

Here’s a quote from Ortiz…some information that she shared with me in her own words: “In the midst of these troubles, I was rushed to the hospital to give birth to my second child. God set up a miraculous breakthrough for us. We discovered that my deceased dad’s sister relocated (to Memphis) from Atlanta, Georgia. When she heard our dire circumstances, she immediately helped us in getting a place. While going through those turbulent times, I ran into other moms who had been homeless over an extended period of time. After their stay in shelters of 30-90 days, these families still had no place to go, sometimes had no skills to be productive, no resources to help their children…these moms were left with more hopelessness, no support, and a chance to be next on the waiting list for another homeless program. This gave me the drive and determination to PUSH until something new was birthed.”

Ortiz used her challenges in life to find new strength and a strong faith. She used that strength and faith not just to help herself and her kids, but to also reach out and help others. Here’s what she has to say about The Jasmine Center:

“The Jasmine Center is a social service industry with a strategic goal of reducing homelessness, crime, poor education, and unemployment in the city of Memphis. Estimations of poverty take into account the average household income, home value, the percent below the federally recognized poverty line and the overall unemployment rate. For all it’s apparent conveniences and perks, city living has never been easy or inexpensive. TJC wants to break the cycle of poverty so prevalent in single households that are caught up in the cycle of unemployment, domestic violence, crime, and incarceration by endeavoring to equip and empower individuals to live life with God, and to help them make the changes necessary to live an abundant and purposeful life. It is our desire to connect the families including any absent fathers with valuable resources, one-on-one mentoring through local church leadership, and counseling services. Our program is designed to develop relationships with the families in order to facilitate a transition from homelessness to a safe stable place to live.”

Now in her wisdom, Ortiz knew she couldn’t do this alone. She found a mentor named Mark Yates, president and CEO of Life Enhancement Services.  She also pulled together an advisory board. Here’s what she said about that process: “I began to think of leaders that enjoyed helping others. The more I talked about my story and my vision for the Center the more like-minded people I found. They would always say to me, ‘Wow, I wish I could help.’ There was my open door for recruitment. I started out with two medical physicians on my Board of Directors then it expanded from there.”

She also applied to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in May 2018. She admits that she wishes she had known beforehand how extensive this process was. Ideally, she now realizes she should have applied for that designation earlier in the process. But we all have things to learn when we are being courageous enough to follow a vision. And when we are strong enough to admit what we didn’t know, we can help educate others following in our footsteps.

So what’s next for The Jasmine Center? The team has built a website (thejasminecenter.com) and is looking for an actual location to offer housing for those in need.

“I am currently in the process of obtaining a place,” said Ortiz, “with the gracious help of realtor Timothy Smith with Jasco Realty and Mary Sharp of 32 years with Remax. They’ve been working expeditiously with finding affordable apartment style units for our expected families in need. I project to have a secure place before the end of 2018.”

The Jasmine Center isn’t sitting by idly while waiting for the housing. The team members are currently working to make connections within the community so they can work together with existing agencies to tackle the problems of abuse, poverty, and homelessness. They are currently involved in a collaborative effort with The Family Safety Center. They decided to make survivor kits for their victims of domestic violence.

What has been her biggest challenge in founding The Jasmine Center?

“My biggest challenge,” she admits, “was not allowing fear to stop me and coming up with the money to get it started. The next biggest challenge was preparing a feasible budget.”

In this podcast, I introduce you to a lot of nonprofit organizations working to make changes in their communities. Some of you ask how a person decides if they should share resources in support of these groups? Well, I suggest just being wise. Look at their websites and talk to their board members. Do your research as you would with any investment—and donating time or money to a nonprofit group is an investment in your community—in our world.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for The Jasmine Center. I hope you follow their story. I admire the determination of Timishia Ortiz and respect her desire to make a difference in the lives of others. I appreciate her willingness and courage to honestly share her story.

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode of my Look to See Me podcast and will return for the next episode.