Women’s Center Invites Supporters to Become Volunteer ‘Ambassadors’

GARY – A new volunteer group is being established at Sojourner Truth House to help the resource center for homeless women and their children continue to serve.

Community Ambassadors for STH was formally introduced at a launch party hosted by Hard Rock Casino on Jan.18, although the idea has been germinating since before STH celebrated its 25th anniversary at a fundraising luncheon last September.

“A lot of things (about the ambassadors group) are open-ended, because we want the membership to take ownership,” said Amanda Maynard, director of development services for the Poor Handmaids of Christ, the religious order that founded STH in 1997 after a study by the PHJC and the Victory Noll sisters at the request of then-Bishop Dale J. Melczek determined that at-risk women and children represented the greatest need in the Diocese of Gary.

Maynard did say the membership-based auxiliary group welcomes “men and women, 18 and older, who can help us move forward” with services for its clients, which numbered 2,270 in 2022. Members will pay a $25 annual fee for administrative costs.

The four areas of focus for the ambassadors, explained Maynard, will be “advocacy, awareness, fundraising and volunteerism,” and members will choose where to concentrate their efforts. “Advocacy may include lobbying legislators, while awareness could interest members who act as spokespeople, attending community events to tell people about STH. Fundraising could include working on the annual Walk for STH or reviving the shoe collection which raised thousands of dollars for STH but just became too much for paid staff to handle. We also want to expand our current (group of 37) hands-on volunteers who help in a number of areas, like operating the food pantry.

“Eventually, we want to pass off the leadership (of the ambassadors group) to the membership, and they would decide what to do,” added Maynard.

Attendees at the launch party were invited to become “inaugural members” of the Community Ambassadors for STH by filling out a simple registration form and submitting their membership payment, “or if you are undecided,” said Maynard, “You can attend the first of planned monthly meetings,”  set for Feb. 15 at First Financial Bank in Gary.

“We plan to hold meetings on the third Wednesday every month – with a goal of one hour – and rotate them among several sites around Lake County, hopefully with a Zoom option, too,” Maynard said.

Angela Paul, STH executive director, said the need for volunteers is great, since the resource center has grown from five to 18 components of care within “four streams of services, from a day center with education courses, a child enrichment (preschool) center and health screenings to an outreach program that concentrates on equipping women from homelessness to homes and jobs, to a housing program that starts with finding immediate shelter for clients to moving them into Gateway program housing units or one of 36 South Shore Commons apartments (out of 60 total) that STH has access to.

“We also offer community-based services, from our food pantry to a clothing closet to a community garden,” said Paul, who broke down the client base as follows: 37% women, 16% men and 49% children (of adult clients).

Current volunteers help with data entry, answering phones, child enrichment activities and case management. “Some of our clients need help obtaining a birth certificate to qualify for government services, or an identification card, and some may need mental health services,” she noted.

Dr. Pam Key, STH director of client services, said there is an affordable housing crisis in Gary, with the COVID-19 pandemic driving the median rent up to $815 for a one-bedroom apartment in Gary, and $1,250 in Merrillville. “We have ladies ready to move in, some with housing vouchers already issued, but we don’t have the space.

Nancy Knightly, a Gary resident, already volunteers at STH and intends to join the ambassador group. “I have a passion about creating change in our world, and I like the idea of getting together a group of people who can work on critical issues,” she said. “I definitely like the idea of regular meetings where we can exchange ideas. If I am going to be an advocate (for STH), I need stories to tell to engage people, and I can practice my skills on the group at meetings.”

Nakima Clark, who moved back home to Gary to care for her late grandmother, said she is interested in helping STH because “I need to get back in the habit of contributing. Sojourner Truth House is in an underserved area, but we don’t have to accept that. We may have to go outside the area to get help.

“I love that regardless of your gift, (STH) will use it. Everybody has gifts – I have a gift of gab, and a gift for listening,” Clark added.

“Each case is individual, sometimes there is an educational barrier or a cultural barrier; we have challenges, but we do not give up,” Key said. “We stay positive with our clients and make sure their needs are met. We reinforce their gifts and remind them of those gifts they have to offer. They are influenced by everyone they meet at STH, from drivers to the kitchen staff to their case manager.”

Key encouraged those who have supported STH with monetary donations and their time to join the ambassadors group. “We need your support; we need your voices,” she said.

To learn more about the Community Ambassadors for STH, attend the first meeting of the group at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15 in the community room at First Financial Bank, 5974 W. Ridge Road, Gary, or call Shelley Boyer, PHJC special events coordinator, at 947-8560.