Lending a hand up to the homeless of west Orange County; lending a hand where we can, connecting resources and people. — Matthew’s Hope Ministries’ motto
The Rev. Scott Billue, founder of Matthew’s Hope Ministries, offers help to those looking to get back on their feet.
Boyce B. lived in his car for five years, until late February, when he discovered Matthew’s Hope Ministries, a resource center for the homeless in Winter Garden. The nonprofit, which was established two years ago, provides services in a dignified manner to help the “structurally challenged” — as founder the Rev. Scott Billue refers to the population — get back on their feet.
Matthew’s Hope is located in a trailer that was restored by the homeless and other volunteers on grounds donated by the Church of Christ of West Orange. It is a place where the homeless can obtain goods and services and begin the process of starting over.
Grounded in the spiritual principles of helping neighbors in need, Matthew’s Hope was inspired by the Bible passage Matthew 25:35-40 which says, in part, For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I needed clothes, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you looked after me … The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Every Tuesday, Matthew’s Hope is open to the public. All people who enter the facility are treated personally and humanely.“Most agencies are impersonal, and you feel like you just take a number for service,” Billue said. “We love these people unconditionally.”Those seeking assistance are warmly welcomed by volunteers. They then take part in a 30-minute interview to gauge needs, background, medical history and any potential sources of income. The goal is to determine what each person or family specifically needs to get back on their feet.Help is offered to complete necessary paperwork. For a person without an address, it is impossible to obtain an ID card, birth certificate, disability and unemployment checks, or veterans’ benefits. People are able to use the Matthew’s Hope address in order to receive mail and obtain benefits they are entitled to.Each person is given a printed checklist to indicate what they need — clean clothing, blankets, tents, poncho, jackets, bottled water, sleeping bags, bug spray, tarps, toiletries, a shower, hot meals or haircut. A personal shopper takes the client to various areas to select what they need. Each week, volunteers do at least 70 to 80 loads of laundry. Billue is also in the process of raising money for a shower trailer that would travel to campsites.Every other week, a medical van stops on the premises and offers medical, dental and mental health assistance. Temporary housing issues are resolved, classes for job training skills are provided, and educational help is offered through Westside Tech. Occasionally, human resources staff members from local employers will visit to rehearse job interviews, which could help lead to employment opportunities. A Veterans Administration representative stops by each week to ensure that homeless veterans receive all their entitled benefits.“One-third of the people we help just became homeless in the past 90 days, and our fastest-growing population, sadly, is women and children,” Billue said.After viewing a TV segment on 60 Minutes about homeless families in Central Florida, many local residents were stunned. Those who have been working steadily to help homeless families here, however, were not.The reporter stated that one-third of U.S. families living on the street and in their cars are in the state of Florida.According to Billue, the piece was helpful, because it “legitimized the homeless situation for us and made people more aware of what has been going on in this area.”Ten years ago, Billue was earning a good salary in sales and marketing, when he said he felt called to the ministry. No longer able to hide his faith in the corporate setting, he started Next Community Church, a nondenominational church in Winter Garden, in November 2006. “For years I’ve been going into the woods of west Orange County and to labor pool sites to give out food, socks and underwear,” he said. “So I asked myself, ‘What would it look like for a church to help the homeless?’”Billue contacted many local churches without receiving any response. The Church of Christ of West Orange was willing to speak with him, and, two years ago, they began to work together for Matthew’s Hope. Originally, the church served as a freeze shelter. When temperatures dropped below 39 degrees, those without shelter could stay at the church and receive hot meals and a warm place to sleep.
Boyce B., who lived in his car for five years, now comes back to Matthew’s Hope Ministries to volunteer and assist in the vegetable garden.
For many of the homeless who become stable with the help of Matthew’s Hope, there is a desire to give back. They do anything from emptying waste baskets to helping in the vegetable garden on the property.
The Church of Christ of West Orange donated an 85-foot-by-75-foot plot of land on their property to be planted, tended and harvested by homeless volunteers or volunteers from the various churches co-partnering with Matthew’s Hope. The first planting was last fall. Organic vegetables are picked and offered for sale on church property, and soon may be sold at the Winter Garden Farmers Market.
With the help of a local master gardener, Shonna Dannels of Ocoee helps coordinate volunteers. She and her family attend Church of Christ of West Orange, and her three children have been changed by the experience of volunteering.
“We stayed overnight at the church, and being exposed to the homeless taught my children to appreciate what they have and to pray for those less fortunate,” Dannels said.Regular volunteer Boyce B. had been hurt on the job seven years ago and ran out of unemployment benefits. After living out of his car for five years, he literally ran out of gas down the street from Matthew’s Hope.“Matthew’s Hope helped me get the paperwork I needed, my birth certificate, discharge papers from my service in the Vietnam War, and a telephone to use,” he said. “I now have my Social Security straightened out and found a nice apartment in a housing project for homeless veterans.“I am happy to be able to come back to Matthew’s Hope to help out. They helped me, and I’ve met other homeless vets that I can help, too.”With its 47 church partners and other community groups, Matthew’s Hope obtains donations and organizes volunteers to help the homeless population in many ways.Over Presidents Day weekend, when many of their peers were taking it easy, high school and middle school members of The Crossings’ youth ministries — Adrenaline and Fusion — volunteered their time for a service project during Unique, their three-day conference. They worked to refurbish bungalows at a motel in west Orange County. More than 100 young people, plus volunteers from Matthew’s Hope and Next Community Church, painted; cleaned; donated comforters, towels and toiletries; and transformed the cabins into short-term homes for those in need. The area was mulched and landscaped, and a children’s playground was set up on the property.“We all worked together to make this a clean and safe place for children and families to stay,” said Joy Tewson, The Crossings’ director of student ministries.Jason Castle of Next Community Church helped with the advanced planning of the weekend’s activities.“This is a chance for the members of different churches to work together as one, to do good and to help others,” he said.Ryan Holden and his wife, Faith, of Ocoee were involved in the youth ministries but “took detours” to explore other phases of teenage life. They returned to their church family and now lead other students.“We walked away from serving others and just wanted to serve ourselves,” said Ryan, who played bass at church services.He played in a secular band, and the couple hung out with different people not involved in church activities. After a frightening illness, Holden was led back to the church.“There’s something special that happens when you serve others and you’re not in a state of selfishness,” he said. “That is where God can speak to you most clearly.”Joel Jordon, a youth leader at The Crossings, is passionate about helping young people.“We are all working together to love and serve others,” Jordon said. “We get students engaged in helping others, and we all get so much from doing this work.”Almond Tree Estates residents Amber and Katie Bednarski, ages 18 and 13, respectively, helped out during the weekend’s activities. Their mother, Stephanie Bowman, is the founder of One Heart for Women and Children, and the family attends The Crossings. Once living in a van in the woods, they now have great empathy for those who are homeless and struggling, and want to help in whatever ways they can.“My motto in life is, ‘I want my life to count for me and my generation,’” Katie said. “Instead of just hanging out, I want to help and serve others.”“There is something about doing something for someone else that makes me very happy,” Amber said. “With the past struggles of my own family, I know how good it feels to have someone who cares and who helps out. I have two feelings — it breaks my heart to see people suffering, but it also makes my day when I can help them.”
Shonna Dannels of Ocoee (center) helps coordinate volunteers at Matthew’s Hope Ministries. Wallace R. (left) and Bobby M., who received assistance from the nonprofit, now give back to the organization.
For 17-year-old Adrenaline member Corbin Singleton, painting cabins for the homeless is one of life’s “full circle” moments. When he was a boy, he and his brothers stayed with their mother for part of each week in a trailer on this very property. “I feel great, because this was my second home when I was younger, and now I can come back to help others right here, so they can have a nice and safe place to stay,” Singleton said.
Other Local Sources for Help
Although there are many organizations and agencies providing services to the homeless, many people do not knowwhere to start. Matthew’s Hope Ministries and a number of other groups in Southwest help connect people to the assistance that is available.Stephanie Bowman is the founder of the nonprofit One Heart for Women and Children, an organization that serves hundreds of people in need every month. Her group partners with local organizations in Southwest. Having lived with her daughters in a van in the woods years ago and being helped by strangers, Bowman wants to pay it forward.“We love to serve,” she said. “By connecting people in need with available resources, we can do our part to help improve their lives.“It’s important not to judge people in this condition. Many of us who help this population have either been homeless or are still struggling ourselves; and not everyone who is homeless is an alcoholic or drug addict. We don’t know their true situation.”Bowman makes presentations in middle schools to raise young people’s awareness about the homeless population.“I can say that I once was there, and I couldn’t have made it alone,” she said. “I was hopeless and helpless, until someone offered us food, kind words and sympathetic advice. We can all do this for someone in need.”Bowman is passionate about helping those in need.“Right now, one out of four families in Central Florida is either homeless, has been homeless or is one paycheck away from being homeless. It is an enormous crisis, and it’s important to do whatever we can to help out.”Bowman’s daughters, Amber and Katie Bednarski, also believe it is important to give back to those less fortunate.“I want to help and serve others,” Katie said.“I do this work to see the joy that I’m giving to others who don’t have as much as I do,” said Katie’s friend, BrookeThomas of Courtlea Oaks. “We often don’t appreciate what we have, and when I see someone who doesn’t have enough, it makes me happy if I can help them.” Bowman is part of the Impact Team, a group of leaders from west Orange County church groups and organizations helping the homeless or those in need, particularly in the Winter Garden area. They meet regularly to coordinate plans and help each other with various projects. Also involved with the Impact Team are Finding the Lost Sheep charitable street ministry and House Blend Café in Ocoee.
Matthew’s Hope Ministries is located at 1460 Daniels Road in Winter Garden. For more information, call 407-461-2625 or visit www.matthewshopeministries.org on the Web.
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