Carpenters Shelter Helps Kids Build Their Lives

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Give a homeless child a meal and they will eat that day.  Give a homeless child the skills to learn and grow and they can overcome homelessness. That is the message of the Carpenters Shelter. Our mission is to end homelessness through services, education and advocacy, said Fran Becker, Executive Director of Carpenters Shelter.

Twenty years ago, Carpenters Shelter began operations in a rent-free Duke Street warehouse as a year-round emergency shelter. Over the years they have transitioned from providing homeless families a roof over their heads and a warm meal to a Center of Learning where clients can learn life skills so they able to live independently in the community. Our response to homelessness used to be a reactive one, providing little more that a bed on cold nights. Now, we are focused on developing solutions that keep our clients from ever experiencing homelessness again, said Becker.

Becker is concerned about the economy and the impact on Alexandria citizens with no safety net. We are seeing more of the working poor needing our services and people are coming in who have never dealt with food stamps or other assistance programs. We are seeing families who are in foreclosure and who are losing their homes. It is going to get worse before it gets better.

Volunteers are stepping in as they always do for Carpenters. Because of our volunteers, we are able to do what we do, said Becker. She added that, this operation is an example of the community addressing the needs of the community. Some of the volunteers have been volunteering for the full twenty years of operation. Becker has been executive director for 10 of those years and deputy director Mary Martin is a 19-year veteran. Two long-time volunteers, Aliette Lachaux and Bobbye Bosworth, were two Becker mentioned, who both recently passed away.

Deputy director Martin is proud of the difference Carpenters has made in the lives of their clients. People come in scared and leave with a sense of hope. One of her main concerns is what happens after clients move back into the community. The Transitional Services Program in 2007 worked with 80 children who were in residence and 155 who were in aftercare. Programs are designed to help parents and children feel a sense of home and welcome. They feel safe here and know that they are welcome back to visit or to take part in a program, said Martin. New programs are always in the works.

There is a new, very exciting program at Carpenters.  It is the Kids Street Sense Program. It started with a casual conversation between Becker and Martin about nine months ago. What are we and the parents going to do to teach our children that they have decisions to make and options to choose that will impact the direction of their lives? Martin wanted to know.  She knew based on surveys that giving children positive options to select from can be life-changing. The challenge was to find the life skills they already had, enhance those positive skills, and give them new ones.

With contributions from Freddie Macs Rising Leaders Program, Carpenters embarked on two pilot programs this summer. There was no national program to model from so they set out to build that model.  According to Martin, we wanted to reinforce what these kids were taught elsewhere. They chose 10 kids between the ages of 8 and 13 years of age. Classes were interactive and lasted for about two hours every other week.

We selected safety awareness life skills which included self-defense, peer pressure, Internet safety, time management and manners for our first series of classes, Martin said. She added, children thrive in the community when they have a sense of self and have been taught that there are options and that they do have choices.

The pilot was so successful that Martin is being asked by other communities around the country to share what they have learned with the introduction of Kids
Street Sense. This fall the program expands to children between the ages of 8 and 16. Workshops will offer demonstrations, hands-on participation and interactive sessions led by staff, community partners, public safety officers and trained professionals. Topics will include nutrition and fitness, self-defense, peer pressure, Internet safety and time management and manners.

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