WINTER GARDEN It was the name - New Beginnings - that prompted Qwanishia Jackson to make the phone call.
She and her 8-year-old son had been homeless for nearly two years and had been living out of her car for months. When she saw a pamphlet for New Beginnings, a homeless rehabilitation program based in Clermont, she knew it was the right place to turn to.
“I was lost,” the Winter Garden resident said. “I had lost everything and was starting from scratch. I needed a fresh start - a new beginning.”
New Beginnings was started a decade ago by Steve Smith after he saw a homeless person in need of assistance and didn’t know where to send him.
“(Smith) just saw a problem and found a solution,” said Erik Segalini, director of community relations with New Beginnings.
Now a decade later, the ministry has offices in Clermont, Kissimmee and, most recently, Winter Garden.
“We started serving in Winter Garden because there were a lot of churches telling us they needed a homeless ministry where they could send people to,” Segalini said. “They were coming to us for help.”
In the last two years, New Beginnings has opened a thrift store and started a social services office in the Winter Garden area.
“The primary thing is that we’re trying to build a relationship and help them get resources,” Segalini said.
One of the biggest contributing factors to homelessness is a lack of affordable housing in the region, Segalini said.
“On average, you need to earn $22 an hour to be able to afford a two-bed apartment in central Florida,” he said.
To combat this problem, the organization broke ground earlier this summer on an affordable apartment complex, called Woodwinds Apartments. The complex will be located on a 10-acre site located on South Grand Highway in Clermont. The apartment are expected to be completed this spring.
Though New Beginnings, those in need have access to food pantries, emergency groceries and hot meals, dental care, legal services and the rehabilitation program.
The 14-week program is one of the core ministries of New Beginnings and requires participates to attend classes on Mondays through Fridays.
“It’s everything from job skills to life skills to spiritual training,” Segalini said. “They write resumes, they do interview training, they do all kinds of different things.”
In addition to taking classes, the participates are required to fulfill volunteer hours at the New Beginnings thrift stores.
“It gives them a chance to work there in the afternoon for a few hours, and it gives us a chance to work with them,” Segalini said. “So when the time comes at the end of phase one to start looking for a job, we can give them an accurate job reference.”
Since the program was created 10 years ago, New Beginnings has had a 70% success rate of getting participants into employment.
“We want to empower people to live responsible lives,” Segalini said. “We’re not just helping them through a difficult time; we’re interested in helping them stand on their own feet.”
To operate the different ministries at New Beginnings, the organization relies heavily on volunteers. So far this year, more than 17,000 hours have been worked by volunteers at all New Beginnings locations.
“That’s a lot of man power coming from the community,” Segalini said.
But the volunteers don’t just give out meals and work behind the scenes - they become a network of support for those going through the ministry’s rehabilitation program.
“They have a whole community supporting them, cheering for them,” Segalini said.
It’s a support that has made a night and day different in Jackson’s life.
“It’s still unbelievable that there are people out there who care,” Jackson said. “They provide everything for you. I didn’t have support when I was by myself. Now I have that support.”
Jackson is finishing up the rehabilitation program and has plans to return to school, thanks to a scholarship, to get a degree. For her and her son, New Beginnings changed her life.
“They’re setting me up so it’ll be hard for me to fail,” she said. “We’ve been really blessed since we’ve been here. Everything has fallen into place.”
Contact Brittany Gaines at [email protected].