Opinion: Daily Journal

Shelter shows power of community

They come in fear. They leave with hope. That’s one way to describe the many hundreds of people who make their way every year to Wilson’s Wesley Shelter, a nonprofit founded in 1983 to combat domestic violence and homelessness in this eastern North Carolina community.

You can hear as many different stories at Wesley Shelter as there are victims being served. Some are fleeing abusive marriages or relationships. Some of them bring their young children with them to the shelter — children who may themselves be victims of abuse. More and more of the victims are elderly or disabled.

Some who come to Wesley Shelter end up staying at its safe house (I won’t publish the address). But many others receive services ranging from counseling and legal aid to job placement, skills training, and basic necessities such as food and clothes.

During a recent tour, I was struck by how much Wesley Shelter exemplifies the community-based approach to solving social problems. Its varied programming receives varied support — government dollars for victim assistance, corporate and foundation grants for major programs and facilities, individual donations of time and money, and strong partnerships with church groups, civic clubs, businesses, police departments, medical providers, scout troops, and many others.

The Wilson community’s investment in Wesley Shelter is “thick.” It’s not just about checks in the mail or canned goods in the pantry. There are deep personal connections. The resulting “social capital” is one of the nonprofit’s key assets, even though it doesn’t show up on a financial statement.

It’s a model for combating problems that draws support from across the political spectrum. Conservatives see an example of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of civil society — a genuinely local institution, deeply embedded in a network of personal relationships and shared values, that seeks to change more than just the immediate material condition of someone in crisis or pain. Progressives observe that government is an important programmatic and financial partner. Libertarians value Wesley Shelter’s independence of action and its heavy reliance on voluntary gifts and volunteered time.

While focused on the Wilson community and largely sustained by it, Wesley Shelter is also part of a wider network of service providers that tap each other’s expertise and share knowledge. It also welcomes help from elsewhere in North Carolina. That’s how I came to find out about it.

Last year, the Raleigh-based grantmaker for which I serve as president, the John William Pope Foundation, created a new statewide program. The Joy Pope Memorial Grant in Human Services is a one-time gift to $100,000 to a North Carolina nonprofit that comes up with a creative way to solve a problem.

In the case of Wesley Shelter, the problem was the layout of its safe house. Nearly all the bedroom space was upstairs. This limited its ability to serve its disabled clients, including a recent double-amputee. Lacking the resources to find or build another facility, executive director Lynne White and other shelter leaders came up with another idea: close in an outdoor structure to create an office and living space for the shelter staff, and then convert the current downstairs offices into additional, accessible bedrooms.

We loved the idea. Our $100,000 check will cover most of the renovation’s cost. But my Pope Foundation colleagues and I aren’t just happy to see the money spent on a worthy project. We are also delighted to showcase Wesley Shelter as an excellent model for providing human services. North Carolina has many other communities like Wilson —places full of strong institutions and talented people that are also challenged by the decline of traditional industries and traditional values.

There is no single answer. These are complex, interrelated problems. More and better jobs would help, but so would stronger families, better schools, and effective services to combat mental illness, addiction, and the cycle of violence.

Wesley Shelter is part of the solution in Wilson. If a nonprofit is doing similar work in your community, help it. If not, start one.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.