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12 months of Giving: Bridge of Hope Centre County

by on February 27, 2014 1:33 PM

(Editor’s note: This is the third of Town&Gown’s yearlong series profiling organizations, groups, and individuals who do noteworthy work to help others — and who also could use your help in aiding those in need. Each month, you’ll have an opportunity to read about these people and organizations in our communities, and maybe be able and even be inspired to provide some help to them. If you have a suggestion for our “12 Months of Giving” series, e-mail dpenc@barashmedia.com.)

She does what she can for her children to stay off the streets. She’ll sleep with her kids in their only car or in a friend’s living room. She’s the one you don’t see and don’t hear about. She’s one of the “invisible homeless,” which is exactly what Bridge of Hope Centre County is trying to prevent.

Bridge of Hope works to combat homelessness for single women with children in Centre County. By providing rental assistance, Bridge of Hope effectively helps women with children find affordable housing.

“People don’t think we have homelessness in State College,” says Kelly Swisher, Bridge of Hope board member and communications and development committee chair. “That’s a big misconception — we do! You don’t see them sleeping on College Avenue, but they can’t sustain themselves.”

Bridge of Hope, a United Way agency, is located at 1315 South Allen Street in State College and is part of a national organization that started 25 years ago in Lancaster and Chester counties. Today, there are 20 Bridge of Hope locations in 12 states.

“It was a couple women within their church saying, ‘We need to serve single women,’ ” says Regina Diller, executive director of Bridge of Hope Centre County. “They saw a need and addressed how to best serve the homeless single moms.”

Bridge of Hope Centre County has been serving women for about four years. During that time, it has helped 11 single moms and 19 children.

“We are a faith-based Christian organization,” Diller says. However, the women who get assistance through Bridge of Hope do not have to profess any kind of faith to be in the program, she says. “[But] that’s why we’re here. Our staff and board are from local church congregations.”

Bridge of Hope serves single moms experiencing, or who are at risk of experiencing, homelessness by paying a portion of their rent on a decreasing scale, Diller says.

“In this area, it’s really hard to find affordable housing,” she says. “ ‘Affordable’ here is an eschewed form of affordable. Students throw that off for single moms.”

A typical apartment in State College with multiple bedrooms can cost $1,200 per month. “If you divide that between two or three people, it’s cheaper. But the mom still needs that space, and she cannot afford that,” Diller says.

A solution many people turn to, she adds, is moving outside of State College, which poses transportation issues if the mom doesn’t have a working vehicle. “It’s this huge never-ending issue,” she says.

In order to receive rental assistance through Bridge of Hope, women need to apply and be accepted into the program. Since the organization is still young in the world of nonprofits, not many people know about it. Due to this, Bridge of Hope relies heavily on church presentations about it, and on other local organizations such as Centre County Women’s Resource Center, Housing Transitions, Strawberry Fields, and CareerLink to refer women to apply to the program.

A woman interested in receiving help or learning more about Bridge of Hope makes the first contact with the organization. “It’s that empowerment and letting her steer the ship,” Diller says.

The application and selection process takes usually six to 10 weeks. “Because we invest so much time and energy and a lot of money, we need to make sure the women we take into our program are as ready for us as we are to serve them,” Diller says. A woman who applies fills out an application and comes in for a first interview. “There are very specific questions regarding history, how she found herself here, goals, and also informing her more about the program.”

If the board thinks a woman is a good fit, they have her send two references and schedule a second interview.

Diller says that Bridge of Hope just finished bringing in three women out of 11 applicants to the program. “It was only going to be two,” Diller says, “but because of the need and the passion to serve the woman, the board has decided to serve three.”

The reason so many women were turned away, Swisher says, is because of finances. “We’ll support as many women as we can afford,” she says.

“They were all good applicants,” says B.J. Weaver, the family-resource coordinator and case manager for Bridge of Hope. “We just had to whittle it down because of funding. But if we had the funding, we could’ve easily taken all the women.”

A woman assisted through Bridge of Hope Centre County experiences a three-way partnership between herself, a social worker, and a church-based mentoring group during the 12 to 24 months she is with the program, Diller says.

“At the top is the mom. She’s the guiding force in the whole program,” she says. Weaver works with the mom to help her find a home. She also will facilitate her relationship with her mentors as well as help her establish goals such as job training and budgeting.

After a woman is accepted into the program she is almost immediately matched with a mentor group, which, according to Diller, is the component that sets Bridge of Hope apart from all others.

“That is the key to the success of the program,” she says. “The mentors come from local church congregations.”

Eight to 12 individuals volunteer to administer a friendship with a single mom and be her support network in the community during the time she is with the program, and often times beyond that, Diller says. “So many of these women may not be from the area or they might not have a healthy support system in the area,” she adds.

Each month, the moms and their support groups meet for a potluck dinner. This gives them the opportunity to bond and have social time.

“They are there to be her support group,” Diller says. “They are there to say, ‘You can do this, and you’re doing a great job.’ ”

As well as meeting goals they set, the moms also work on budgeting and sustaining their family on the income they have. Bridge of Hope Centre County does pay a portion of each woman’s rent while they are in the program, but they do it on a decreasing basis.

“I think that’s what people like about our program,” Swisher says. “It’s not a 100-percent handout.”

According to Diller and Bridge of Hope’s annual report from 2012-13, it takes about $12,000 each year to support one family. This number is based on the cost of a two-bedroom apartment in State College, Diller says. In order to fund this, Bridge of Hope relies on community donations.

To help raise awareness and money, the organization has several fundraisers during the year. It’s largest is the Mother’s Day 5K Fun Run/Walk. This year, the event takes place May 10 at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg. Diller says she hopes the event will raise between $15,000 and $20,000 for the organization.

Another event that benefits Bridge of Hope is the monthly “Taste of Home” charity dinner, which is sponsored by Home D Pizzeria/Robin Hood Brewing Co. For $75, each person attending gets a five-course gourmet meal as well as two wine pairings, and a portion of the proceeds are donated to Bridge of Hope.

“It’s been hugely successful because last year they raised over $12,000,” Swisher says, “which is enough to serve one woman for one year.”

The Law Dogs Motorcycle Club, Central PA chapter, will have its annual Poker Run on May 3, and proceeds from this year’s event will go to Bridge of Hope.

In the future, Swisher says she hopes that Diller and Weaver, the organization’s only paid staff, will be able to work full-time. “Right now we’re operating on a limited administrative staff,” she says.

She and Diller say that Bridge of Hope Centre County is looking for volunteers as well as board members. Volunteers typically help with office mailings as well as organizing and helping at fundraisers and events, Diller says. Board members meet once a month and typically serve on a committee in whatever their area of interest is.

“We’re always looking for mentor groups, too” Diller says. The goal, she says, is to have the mentor group together before the woman starts the intake process, so she has constant support as soon as she is accepted.

Bridge of Hope currently has three mentor groups through two churches, Calvary Baptist and Good Shepherd Catholic, Diller says.

Bridge of Hope relies on church presentations to spread the word about mentoring. Anyone interested in that or doing a fundraiser, such as a spaghetti dinner, should contact her. As well as accepting monetary donations to the organization, Diller says Bridge of Hope also accepts gas cards and grocery cards for the women to use.

For more information about Bridge of Hope Centre County and to register for fundraising events, call (814) 237-HOPE or visit www.centre.bridgeofhopeinc.org.

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