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'Giving a Hand Up Not a Hand Out:' Helping People Get Back on Their Feet

David Treadwell, executive director of Washington’s historic Central Union Mission, discusses responding to the changing needs in our community has given us the opportunity to get increasing numbers of people back on their feet with employment, housing and reconciled relationships.

David Treadwell

I am honored to be considered a “Champion of Change,” representing Central Union Mission in Washington, DC. Help for homeless and poor people has not changed much since the privately funded Mission began 127 years ago—clean beds, nutritious meals and hot showers will always be required. We continue to provide a clean, safe and polite overnight facility for men, as well as food, clothes and other necessities for families and children. What is changing, however, is the scope of our guests’ needs and how we address them. I can best explain our efforts toward wholesome change at our historic institution by introducing some of my partners in change.

I invited Dr. Jorge De Casanova to join the Mission staff in 1998 to open our services to the rapidly growing Hispanic community. We studied the community and began by offering a Bible study and sharing food and clothing. Word spread, and the Hispanic Family Ministries has grown to include over 300 families. Pastor Jorge challenged some preconceptions: classes in English literacy often need to begin with Spanish literacy. We need citizenship classes, but some need emotional and career counseling first. To offer vocational training, we incorporate testing and partner with other agencies for job experience. Free clothing, food and furniture ease the financial burden on under-employed families. Through this Ministry, hundreds of children receive school supplies so they can succeed, summer camp experiences that help them mature and Christmas and Easter presents that show them how much they are loved.

Since Washington, DC, offers many government and nonprofit programs to assist people in need, an organization devoted to meeting needs requires an expert to marry the programs with those who need them. Shirley Johnson, MSW, has brought to the Mission some 35 years of experience and now advises our staff and guests on when to apply Mission resources and when to partner with others to meet needs. Ever innovative, she has mapped the road to success for hundreds of Mission students and guests.

Food has been a critical part of the Mission’s service to poor people since 1884. However, distribution of food is an ever-evolving process. Minister Deborah Chambers has overseen a large increase in neighbors served by our daily “Food Depots” by transforming them into times of fun and celebration. Her team makes sure that all feel welcome. Our monthly Seniors Luncheon combats loneliness as much as hunger. The same is true for our work with families, walk-ins and our Overnight Guests. How the food is given is just as important as the amount. All should enjoy a partnership between those God has blessed and those He is blessing.

Jeff Tooles was homeless and addicted, but after graduating from the Mission’s Spiritual Transformation Program, he began serving others. He spent most of the last twenty years at Central Union Mission as a cook, but as he gained experience, he became our senior manager for outreach to the community. He and his kitchen staff served over 150,000 meals last year, and he also managed the collection and redistribution of the equivalent of over 400,000 bags of groceries to individuals and smaller agencies. He is continually investigating new methods for feeding and caring for our community.

In addition to these four servants, we value our behind-the-scenes partners in change: neighbors, companies, churches, community groups and other friends. Central Union Mission relies on their steady donations and faithful volunteering because we are not supported by government funding.

Homeless and poor people will always need help, but at Central Union Mission we offer a hand-up, not a hand-out. Responding to the changing needs in our community has given us the opportunity to get increasing numbers of people back on their feet with employment, housing and reconciled relationships. If I’ve learned anything in my 14 years at the Mission, it is to expect changes, value challenges and depend on God’s exciting solutions.

Lieutenant Colonel David O. Treadwell, US Army (Retired), is executive director of Washington’s historic Central Union Mission.