Sarah Surdam’s life changed when her son died. She’d grown up in Lansing, Mich., with a mom, dad, brother, sister and dog. She went to college, married, had six children and got a job as a paramedic. Then in 2004 her 17-year-old son Darren suddenly collapsed at school and died of a brain aneurism.
“Darren’s death threw me for a loop,” Ms. Surdam told response. “I got depressed. I lost my job. My husband left. I lost my house. I turned my back on God, and I started self-medicating to escape the depression.”
Her four oldest children moved in with their father, but her 2-year-old daughter stayed with her. Homeless, they lived in Ms. Surdam’s car, and at times, in a shelter.
Her self-medicating progressed from taking her children’s Ritalin to an expensive crack habit. To pay her dealer, she stole $1,600 from the shelter’s office, enough to get her high for three days. She was arrested, jailed, put on probation and ordered to pay restitution.
The courts eventually sent Ms. Surdam to First Step, a house for women in transition run by the United Methodist Community House in Grand Rapids, Mich, a national mission institution. First Step, with its structured environment that demands accountability, is helping Ms. Surdam to heal.
She’s begun a process of reuniting with her family and now talks with her oldest daughter, who’d refused to see her for four years. She volunteers at Community House — and she stays clean.
“A couple of weeks ago I ran into my former dealer on the street, and he wanted to hook me up,” she said. “I didn’t do it. I’m clean, and I’m getting my family back together.”
A history of service
Known by many in the neighborhood simply as “The Methodist,” the United Methodist Community House was born in 1902 as a project of Methodist women in Grand Rapids. It was a part of the settlement house movement and centered around an educational program for children of Syrian immigrants. Based in a storefront, the classes included Bible study, citizenship, cooking, sewing and handicrafts.
As the project grew, it moved locations and began receiving support from the Woman’s Home Missionary Society. That group’s successor, United Methodist Women, continues supporting Community House today, providing insurance as well as training for the board of directors and the executive director.
First Step opened in 2007. Social workers from the center had worked with the city’s police force to help women who ran afoul of the law, particularly sex workers. But the police chief left, and funds dried up. “We kept on working with women, giving them hygiene kits, trying to refer them elsewhere for help, but they often had nowhere to go,” said Rose Simmons, the program director. “When the house next door came up for sale, we bought it.”
Since then, the house has been a safe place for women taking the first steps back toward a healthy life.
The prisoner reentry initiative
“The Methodist” also helps men step away from crime and reunite with their families as part of the state-funded Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative.
Each year more than 10,000 prisoners are released in Michigan, yet more than 3,600 return to prison within four years. Michigan Department of Corrections reports returning offenders cost the state $112 million a year. And without intervention, 70 percent of children with an incarcerated parent also end up in prison. Providing family support and encouraging family responsibilities is essential for a successful parole.
Community House staff talk to the men while they’re still incarcerated and explain the transitional skills that will be the focus of a series of classes.
“If a prisoner is interested, then they sign up. But some of these guys are tough and think they don’t need it,” Ms. Simmons said. “We remind them they’ve only seen their children for limited visits to the prison, if at all, so when they get home the rubber is going to meet the road. Yet they feel everything is going to be wonderful when they leave. They don’t think about how long it will take to get a job, which is even harder when you have a felony. I tell them that the first week is going to be their honeymoon period, a time when their wife or girlfriend loves to see them. But after that week, things change. You better get off the couch, because your partner will start asking when you’re going to find a job. She has coped without you, and now you’re just another mouth to feed.”
When the returning citizen gets out, Community House staff members are there to help them and their family, including providing ongoing classes in critical skills like parenting.
Some of the women who come to live in the First Step house are also transitioning out of prison. Robbie Smith is one of them. She did three years for passing bad checks to feed her drug habit. Prisoner Reentry Initiative works well for her.
“Instead of coming out of prison with no money, nothing, they help you get on your feet,” she said. “They help pay rent, get a bus ticket, provide leads for jobs, and get you hooked up with social services, all to help you make the best choices.”
Ms. Smith moved into First Step in 2010. She says it’s safer than she expected.
“This is the ‘hood.’ I used to know people around here who sold drugs. But it’s changed since then,” she said. “The neighborhood has changed; it’s been cleaning up. With ‘The Methodist’ here, there are more programs for kids so they’re not on the streets and getting caught up in drugs.
“The house is a comfortable place for me. It’s a supportive environment where there’s someone to talk with other than a relative or a counselor. It’s a place where there’s a friend when you need one to talk with or to help you fight the urge to get high. It’s a place where I’m learning to stand on my own two feet, but at the same time I know there’s someone there to catch me when I need it.”
Ms. Smith is beginning a community college program in automotive technology. The Prisoner Reentry Initiative is paying her tuition. She wants to specialize in hybrid cars.
“Someday I want to own my own garage with just female mechanics and one guy to answer the phone,” she said. “This last time in prison was hard. I’m never setting my feet back in prison. I don’t care how hard it gets. I’ll struggle. I won’t take the easy way.”
Keeping seniors connected
Community House also provides a safe space for more than 60 seniors, many without family or surviving friends, to spend their weekdays.
Anita Christopher, manager of the senior program, says it’s an antidote to seniors’ isolation and loneliness and a way to keep them informed, especially about health care.
“We work with lots of African-Americans, so there’s a high incidence of diabetes and other specific challenges. We help them maintain and improve their health. We exercise with them. But perhaps most importantly, we provide them an opportunity to connect with others,” she said.
“When we take our seniors home on Friday, many of them are alone in their apartment or little room until we pick them up again on Monday morning,” said Ms. Christopher, who is also director of community relations. “If they’re living in adult foster care, they may come out to eat and that’s it. Many of them have no connection anymore to family. So they come here to be involved, to go places, to learn, to get excited about simple things like the Wii bowling tournament at the end of the week.”
Outreach workers from Community House help the seniors with everyday tasks, like arranging doctor visits. “Some of them can’t use a phone because they never learned their numbers. If all you did was pick cotton all your life, there was no need,” Ms. Christopher said.
The staff takes the seniors to baseball and hockey games. Otherwise, they’d never get out, Ms. Christopher says. There’s a public shuttle service in Grand Rapids for seniors, but it requires the passenger to make a donation. “Yet many of our seniors can’t afford even a small donation,” she said.
“If you worked as a domestic or picked cotton all your life, you don’t have a pension. If you’re in a group home for seniors, you may get $500 a month in Social Security, but the house takes all that. So most of our seniors have nothing in their pocket. Nothing. The politicians who want to cut services to these people ought to walk in their shoes for one day. They can’t even afford to buy soap.”
Once a year Community House hires limos and brings program participants, now up to 100 years old, to a senior prom where they spend the evening eating and dancing. Ms. Christopher says the only complaint they get is that they always send the participants home too early.
Yet it’s the daily ritual of gathering together that constantly feeds the spirit of the seniors, and weekly events, like bingo, that bring excitement. The bingo prizes are donated by local churches, and everyone goes home with something.
Community House’s child development center is nationally accredited, a status for which fewer than 10 percent of similar centers qualify. And its basketball and other programs provide alternatives for older youth, giving young people a place to get away from gangs.
Community House sponsors a child care center in a housing project and hosts “Believe to Become, ” a summer program that keeps the academic skills of middle- and high-school students from atrophying during vacation. The program includes career-oriented activities and a work component.
In 2010 Community House started an after-school program in two local elementary schools — one majority Hispanic, which is the latest demographic shift in Grand Rapids. “Schools of Hope” aims to improve the reading skills of children who have fallen one or two grades behind in their academic performance. The 90-minute program runs Monday through Thursday. “It’s a privilege to watch a child’s response when they learn one new word. It’s amazing. They feel so proud,” Ms. Simmons said.
For Ms. Christopher, who grew up in the neighborhood, the new work with Hispanic children is a continuation of the Community House legacy.
“Methodist women got involved in this community more than a century ago because of the Syrian immigrants here,” she said. “The Methodist women reached out to the new families, helping them assimilate and helping their children get an education.”
Later on, Ms. Christopher said, it was African American children who were welcomed. “In the 1950s, there was no place for working African-American women to take their children. The nursery schools in Grand Rapids wouldn’t accept them. The Methodist Community House was the only place that would accept black children,” she said.
The last white families moved out of the area in the 1960s, and African-American families that could afford it began to move out to the suburbs in the 1980s, Ms. Christopher said. Although some white families have returned in recent years — part of a nascent gentrification movement taking advantage of large, now inexpensive, old homes — and an influx of Hispanic families has altered some neighborhoods, the Community House remains a beacon of hope in a landscape of chronic poverty.
Even most of the gangs have moved elsewhere. “There’s not enough money left in this neighborhood to fight over,” said Ms. Christopher.
Yet what shape the presence of “The Methodist” will take in coming years is undecided. Funding from the state and other sources has been cut back dramatically. Ms. Christopher’s job includes making thank-you calls for donations, and she says her list of names and phone numbers gets smaller every month.
“United Methodist Women members have long seen this place as their agency. They feel a part of what we do,” Ms. Christopher said. “But when I speak in churches today it’s only the older, white-haired ladies who have heard of the Community House. If we’re to remain here as a mission of the church, we’ve got to get more younger women involved with the work we’re doing in their name.”
Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He lives in Washington.