By Bonni Sundberg
I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never been in a homeless shelter before. As I waited, I thought about what it would be like to be at this very door, with no home, maybe small children to care for and no place to go.
Maybe this would be a place where I could do my laundry, take a shower, give my kids a place to do their homework, put the baby down for nap and check out the job situation on the computer — and hopefully, look forward to a home cooked supper for myself and my family. All these thoughts ran through my mind.
I was on the doorstep of the New Bethlehem Project (NBP), which is Kirkland’s only family day center for the homeless. When I walked in the door, I was warmly greeted by Natalia Pierson, program manager for the center. Once inside, I was very impressed with what I saw. It was very clean and inviting and felt very homey. There were two very large shower/ bathrooms rooms, washers and dryers, a space for children to play with toys and games, playpens for babies, tables and chairs for multiples uses and a large, bright kitchen/dining area.
Since it has opened its doors on Nov. 6, 2016, NBP has assisted 190 people.
Most of the guests who visit this day center are newly homeless and one of the goals of NBP is to make homelessness a one-time situation. To date, NBP has helped re-home seven families. There are mostly two-parent families coming to the facility but it will accommodate both single mothers and single fathers with children. This is the only day center on the Eastside where a single father can take his children. Other day centers are only set up for single mothers with children.
“One of the beautiful things about New Bethlehem is our welcome,” Pierson said. “We are intentional about creating a warm and safe environment for our guests. Homelessness can be a dehumanizing experience, whether it’s the individuals refusing to meet the eyes of the panhandler on the corner or pretending that homelessness doesn’t exist in “my community.” It’s a privilege to be able to journey with families on their path towards stability. The first steps can be providing a place for them to put down their burdens, figuratively and literally, and rest, so they can make active steps towards their goals, with the aid of the case manager.”
The facility is staffed by two full-time employees but it is the volunteers who allow the day center to do what it does. There are six-to-seven different people who help out daily and one of the things these volunteers do is prepare the dinner meal. When I asked about volunteers at the center, Natalia said, “The positive response by the Eastside community has been overwhelming. It’s a joy to watch our volunteers interact with our guests, often people they would not be in community with if it was not for the day center. It’s great to see volunteers investing in their community by having a cup of coffee with a mom experiencing homelessness and listening to her talk about her dreams for her children and her desire to give her children a normal life.”
There are usually about 32 people at New Bethlehem at a time, 13 of whom are adults and the rest are children of all ages. The current location of the NBP is in the basement of the Salt House Lutheran Church in Kirkland. Salt House has very generously donated this space free of charge for the use of the day center.
The ultimate goal is to open a 24-hour shelter in the same location.
Salt House is selling some of its land to the City of Kirkland and proceeds from that sale will go to building a 24-hour shelter. This will allow those needing assistance to have a place to stay and to leave their belongings. Unless they have a car where they can leave their possessions, guests need to move them from place to place every day.
There have been a numerous individuals and organizations that have come together to make the NBP happen. Support and donations have come in many ways from many different places. One group that felt a great need to give assistance to the NBP was the Kirkland Kiwanis Foundation (KKF). With the help from a grant the club received from The Tableau Foundation, the KKF donated $10,200 that paid for all the furniture in the center.
Pierson told me, “We are very grateful for the donation made by the Kirkland Kiwanis Foundation. It enabled us to purchase top of the line, durable furniture that is light weight, easy to keep clean and will last for many years.” Kiwanis is an international service organization whose motto is “Serving the Children of the World”.
The Kiwanis Club of Kirkland and its foundation upholds that motto by assisting children and their families needing help in our community. If you would like to know more about the Kiwanis Club of Kirkland and what they do, check out www.kirkland.kiwanis.org or call Tom Pendergrass at (206) 910-1949.
If you are interested in learning more about the New Bethlehem Project, would like to volunteer or make a donation, visit their website at www.nbpshelter.org.
As I left the day center that day after my interview with Natalia, I thought about homelessness in whole different way than I did before I walked through the doors of the New Bethlehem Project. As a Kirkland resident and a member of the Kiwanis Club of Kirkland, I felt proud to know that I was part of a community and as an organization that was able to reach out and help families and children in need in our area in this way.
Bonni Sundberg is with the Kiwanis Club of Kirkland.