The thrift store on South Dillard Street provides gently used items at a discounted price — everything from household knickknacks to furniture to clothing. But the Hope Center, which has been open since March, is so much more than that.
People in need can find programs and services such as a food pantry, job placement, counseling, immigration services and life solutions.
“We do a lot of life-changing services,” said Pastor Tim Grosshans, chairman of the board of directors for the center. “If we the Hope Center don’t do it immediately there, then we know who does.”
The center is open to anyone who needs assistance. It is operated by a network of churches: First Baptist Church of Winter Garden, First United Methodist Church of Winter Garden, Resurrection Catholic Church, Church of the Messiah, Oakland Presbyterian Church, Found Life Church, Mosaic Church, West Orange Church of Christ, Emmaus Church, The Lakeside Church, Kingdom Culture, Real Life and People of Faith Lutheran Church. Grosshans hopes more churches will join the list so even more help can be provided to folks in need.
If a family comes in hungry, they are directed to the food pantry.
The Hope Center partners with Southeast Food Bank and Second Harvest Food Bank to stock the pantry. Community partners, individuals and organizations also hold donation drives that bring in more food.
Since March, volunteers in the food bank have given away $143,118 worth of food to 3,700 people in 1,428 households. That totals 55,755 meals.
“The way we calculate that is every family that comes in gets an imaginary budget based on family size,” site director Justin Burger said. “They get a shopping cart, pick out their own food.”
Every item on the shelves has a “price,” and volunteers assist the clients in learning how to budget. Before any food is given to clients, though, they must undergo an interview process so Hope Center workers know individuals’ needs.
“We sit down and interview the folks and get to know them and help so it’s not feast to famine,” Grosshans said of the growing food pantry.
The pantry previously was located at First Baptist of Winter Garden, but it will close down now that the Hope Center is in operation.
“We hang onto folks,” Grosshans said. “We don’t just hand them a bag of groceries and say, ‘Have a nice life.’ (Recently) a Venezuelan refugee family came in. They had no food, no income — they were just stuck. They got all the groceries they needed, and we got started on their green card so they can work.”
That’s where the 323 job placement service comes in. The faith-based organization serves as a resource for people who are looking for employment or who need help with their resume or other guidance.
Since March, staff has located 199 jobs for clients.
Another partner, Humana, offers health services.
While all of these services are taking place in the back of the center, volunteers are operating the thrift store up front.
“The thrift store is just how we pay for it,” Grosshans said. “We’re not quite there yet, but our goal is for the thrift store to pay all our overhead costs.”
Savannah Bradley recently was hired as thrift store manager, and she oversees the operations, including donations, which are accepted around the back of the building.
“Let the community know — you can bring in your gently used items and turn that into services,” Grosshans said.
In addition to dropping off donations, the community also can sign up to volunteer for specific hours or days. They will be trained in the various operations.
“There’s a place for anybody,” Burger said. “Stock shelves, prayer warrior — there’s a spot for you.”
With volunteers in place, the Hope Center can continue its goal of bettering the community.
“We have a big Spanish population here, and so we’re starting to see more people from Venezuela,” Burger said. “We had a family that just moved here and walked here from up the street. She came here with their kids and … as they came in, they got groceries, our team just loved on them, we prayed on them.”
The immigration services have been a Godsend for several families. Many don’t think it’s possible for them to become United States citizens because the legal fees can cost as much as $10,000. The only fees the families have to pay at the Hope Center is a $300 processing fee.
“We make sure there are no barriers,” Burger said. “We saw our third person get sworn in as a U.S citizen, which was amazing because that sometimes takes years.”
The Hope Center has saved 55 clients about $157,000 in legal fees, he said.
GETTING THE FACILITY READY
When the Hope Center obtained the building, it took months to get the facility ready for employees, services and the thrift store. Rodents had taken over the space, so the damage was severe, Grosshans said. Construction work included a new roof, sheetrock, trim work, paint, plumbing and electrical repairs. The office received a new floor, and the security cameras were replaced. Someone volunteered to fill in the holes in the parking lot.
There still are doors that need to be replaced, and the plan is to build three soundproof counseling rooms across the back of the warehouse.
To make this happen, Hope Center officials are turning to the community for help through donations and volunteerism.
“We’re in need of some more volunteers to come in and do admin-type work – one thing is to thank the volunteers, follow up with them, schedule volunteers, make phone calls to various volunteers and agencies and make sure they know we’re here,” Burger said.
“There’s so many good services in this town, so many good things, but folks don’t know what’s here,” Grosshans said. “I want this to be a place where all the various groups will rally around and say this can be our marketing department. … I like to call it the one-stop shop no matter what you need. Whether we can address it directly or not, you will find solutions here. You won’t walk out without solutions.”
The key to a successful outcome for clients is building relationships with them.
“They can come back and know that the people here are interested in their lives and not just (offering) something handed down,” Grosshans said.
“Our best volunteers are people who have used our services,” Burger said. “It’s hard to get past your pride to come to a place like this. I say, ‘You will be uniquely qualified to help others.’ … Our whoe vision statement is we just want to see better lives. That’s what we aim for in all our services.”
“Jesus promised us that the poor will always be among you, and then He says take care of them,” Grosshans said. “That’s why we’re here.”