WILKES-BARRE — In addition to showcasing 21 new beds that replaced worn bunks and cots, a celebratory open house at a women’s homeless shelter on Thursday gave visitors a glimpse of a well-run organization that’s making an incredible difference in the lives of the women sheltered there.
The reason behind the celebration: Ruth’s Place House of Hope has merged with Volunteers of America.
Even though the shelter receives funding through state and county grants, there have been months-long lags between grant approvals and disbursement of the funds, said shelter director Kristen Topolski.
“For a small organization, that’s devastating. But for a large organization like Volunteers of America, they can bridge those funding gaps,” Topolski said.
Volunteers of America, founded in 1896, is a national nonprofit providing local human service programs and the opportunity for volunteerism in more than 400 communities in 46 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Ruth’s Place, by contrast, started in the basement of First United Methodist Church in Wilkes-Barre as an overnight winter shelter in 2003. It expanded to year-round operation in 2007 and now operates 24 hours a day in a stand-alone building in the North End, providing intensive case management to help women find permanent housing, jobs, financial assistance and counseling.
As part of the merger, Ruth’s Place will become a program of VOA, along with other projects such as Manna House, Dial-a-Driver and the Thrift Store on South Main Street. The board of directors of Ruth’s Place will stay together as an advisory group to continue fundraising and to give input on the shelter’s programs and finances.
The groundwork for the merger was laid about a year ago at a breakfast meeting.
Peggy Rapp, chairwoman of Misericordia University’s Sociology Department, was on the board of Ruth’s Place at the time. She was familiar with VOA’s work with the homeless in New York City when she ran a mental health clinic for the homeless there in the late 1990s.
Noting that Ruth’s Place and the VOA are both ministry-based service organizations, Rapp brought the idea of collaboration to the board. Topolski and then board president Bill Bolan met with Alan Garner, president/CEO of VOA Pennsylvania, and Tom Stiers, VOA chief financial officer, over breakfast to discuss it.
“I’ve lived all over the U.S. — north, south, east and west — and seen all different kinds of service organizations. When Kristen told us, ‘Here’s what we do and here’s our situation,’ I was blown away when they said they get 96 percent of the women who stay there into housing. They had our attention immediately,” Garner said on Thursday.
As discussions progressed, VOA officials continued to be impressed with the Wilkes-Barre shelter, Garner said.
Bolan on Thursday said the shelter needs the administrative expertise and resources of the VOA in order to continue expanding. Topolski said need in the community is greater than ever, noting that Ruth’s Place cared for 292 women in 2012, and that number will be surpassed in 2013.
And although the shelter has merged with VOA, Topolski said all donations to the shelter will remain designated to the shelter. And private donations and fund raising play critical parts in ensuring that the shelter continues operating. That’s why volunteers are working to publicize the Ruth’s Place Walk-a-Thon — a major fund raiser coming up on Nov. 3.
In addition to monetary donations and supply contributions, volunteers are also critical.
Holly Wickizer was one of those volunteers on hand Thursday. The 29-year-old is wheelchair-bound because she developed multiple sclerosis. She became homeless when she could no longer access her house, so she ended up sleeping in her car until she was taken in at Ruth’s Place. Now, she lives in her own apartment in Wilkes-Barre.
“This place is wonderful. … It’s like family here. They got me into my new home. Now my goal is to come back and help the people in the situation I was in. I really wish there were more places like this,” Wickizer said.