Volunteers and community partners collaborate to provide for homeless individuals at Pancake Day at The Venue at Coosa Landing on Saturday, February 19, 2022. Photo courtesy of Gil Isbell.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
For Gadsden and Etowah County, Kiwanis Club’s Pancake Day proves an annual and beloved local custom. As families and volunteers poured in droves to contribute and enjoy the morning of Saturday, Feb. 19, a collection of compassionate citizens and organizations adopted a tradition of their own – opting to serve those without, giving when and where kindness is needed most.
Gadsden Public Library Director and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) member Craig Scott partnered with coworker Teen Hive Department Manager and The Love Center board member Rachel Cole, The Love Center board member Kristi Kent and The Freedom Center’s Bruce Word to address a significant issue perpetuating throughout Etowah County: homelessness.
Scott and Cole shared they were unaware of the homeless situation in Etowah County prior to their involvement with the library, a location that often serves as a refuge for individuals during hours of operation to escape the cold or heat. Scott noticed that throughout the years, the numbers have increased and circumstances appear to have worsened, but local resources are attempting to alleviate the crisis.
“The importance of these partnerships is to give them hope,” said Scott. “It’s to keep people alive and safe. There is something that could be done better than it is being done now. We’re doing the best we can, but there’s a bigger solution out there somewhere. We need to address the problem, with support from leaders and talk about where we might take our city.”
The Freedom Center flourished as an extension of local Freedom Church Pastor Bruce Word’s collaboration with congregation members and other like-minded partners who consider helping the helpless, hurting and homeless a divine mandate. The Freedom Center fulfills scriptural commands through its efforts, its actions coinciding with Biblical teachings that implore generosity and benevolence among followers of Christ.
Its concept originated with church members such as Chris and Trena Clayburn who joined the congregation in aiding families during Christmastime, providing meals and gifts for children. Word shared that while conversing with the Clayburns, the idea for a ministry center arose – sparking first as a small flicker that would soon ignite into a dire resource for the community.
Located at 1601 West Meighan Boulevard in Gadsden, harbored in the former Rainbow Mattress store across from the city’s sports complex, The Freedom Center emerges as a safe haven for those seeking solace and shelter. Typically operating Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., when cold weather sweeps the county, the center opens its doors seven days a week. Showers and hygiene products are available for men, women and children, with the center providing both washers and dryers for individuals to wash their personal clothing, while offering fresh clothes out of the facility’s closet for those who need other items. The Freedom Center also has internet access, areas to charge phones and television.
Food remains readily available at the center, with a coalition of passionate community partners donating meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. During the past few frigid weeks, while the center welcomed people for 24 hours a day, the facility averaged 27 individuals each night (who slept in cots with blankets), 30 for breakfast, 20 for lunch and 30 for dinner. Various organizations and businesses throughout Etowah County provided meals, including Bellevue Baptist Church, Charlotte Worthy with Dre Kirkpatrick’s 21 Kids Foundation, Church of the Highlands, Pathways Academy, Mi Casita, Jeff Randall, Nanda Patel, Jack’s, McDonald’s, the Etowah Baptist Association and Etowah Baptist Mission Center, Modern Woodmen of America, Golden China, Little Caesars, Blackstone Pub & Eatery, Tre Ragazzi’s Italian Café, Fresh Value Groceries, Honey Baked Ham, Barney’s Roadhouse, Etowah County Master Gardeners, Family Success Center, McGuffey Healthcare, The Dog House, LongHorn Steakhouse, MANNA, Krispy Kreme, First United Methodist Church Women’s group and most recently, Kiwanis Club’s Pancake Day.
The partnership with Pancake Day originated when Scott contacted Kiwanis member Glen Williams and State Representative Gil Isbell about the center. Kiwanis donated 30 plates for breakfast, with Scott bringing regular Freedom Center attendees to the event and Kent traveling to The Venue at Coosa Landing with residents of The Love Center. Scott, Kent and Cole emphasized that opportunities such as Pancake Day meet a person’s physical and emotional needs – though individuals received a warm and filling breakfast, the social aspect of interacting with others ministered to their hearts.
“It offers them a sense of normalcy and it lets them know they’re loved,” said Cole, noting that homeless individuals are often ostracized from society and shunned. “They’re people just like we are.”
“It helps their self-esteem,” said Kent. “It helps them feel like they’re a part of something, when normally they feel like they’re on their own, by themselves.”
Cole and Kent attested to the stigma that surrounds homelessness, building a barrier between people and the essential assistance they need to improve their circumstances. Misconceptions that all individuals experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs, thieves or criminals pollute perspectives and hinder willingness to help. Other viewpoints that wonder why homeless people do not “just get a job” dilute the complexity of situations, ignoring the difficulty that surfaces often when individuals seek employment. Cole illustrated that turning a blind eye is dangerously effortless, adopting the philosophy “out of sight, out of mind,” when it comes to homelessness. But issues never dissolve because a person chooses to look away.
“People that live here do not realize how many homeless people we have in this community,” said Kent. “Some of these people [who are homeless] are very sweet and very kind. They’ve gotten down on their luck and made mistakes, and people are afraid to give them a chance.”
“If anybody’s got eyes to see, all they’ve got to do is just look around,” said Word, reiterating Kent’s and Cole’s stance and urging citizens not to judge others, because in an instant, their roles could reverse. “From Alabama City across from Canterbury Station to the trolley stop downtown, there are homeless people. They’re everywhere you look. I was a chaplain at the Etowah County jail for seven-and-a-half years and I never met anyone who wanted to be homeless. They just woke up like many of us and made a decision, and that decision cost them. I want the community to know there are people that need our help. We can’t all do the same thing, but we can all do something.”
Word reflected on how he witnessed The Freedom Center affect lives, recalling an instance when a young woman began crying after leaving the shower. Word asked her if something was wrong, worried someone had offended or hurt her. With tears streaming down her face, she told Word that moment marked the first time in over a year she set foot in a shower. Before, she bathed under hosepipes or in convenience store restrooms.
Another woman visited the center from another ministry, helping volunteer. While she gathered clothing for a Freedom Center client, she also wept, telling Word that she used drugs in the same building where they stood, in the very room where she folded clothes. She said, “Now, here I am helping people try to overcome what I have overcome.”
“When we provide the shelter for them to come in at night, and you see them come into a warm building where they can sleep out of the elements, they just thank you over and over,” said Word. “I’ve learned I take things for granted – I take for granted I’m going home to a warm house and shower when I need one. I take for granted I’ve got plenty of food in the cabinets and refrigerator to eat. [Working at The Freedom Center] helped me see that the things I take for granted on a daily basis are things that a lot of people don’t have.”
“As a faith-based facility, I hope they find the Lord and a relationship with Him. I want them to know there are people that love them and want to see them better themselves, and that everybody is not against them. That’s our goal – to help them become a productive part of society again.”
The Freedom Center is one only one resource in Etowah County for the homeless population, along with entities such as The Love Center, Catholic Center of Concern and Family Success Center. Kent shared that The Love Center provides temporary housing and food, while partnering with local businesses to find residents jobs to get back on their feet and transition into permanent personal housing. She discussed the current process of partnering with Quality of Life Health Services’ Dr. Wayne Rowe, Charlotte Worthy with Dre Kirkpatrick’s 21 Kid’s Foundation and others to form a committee to generate short-term solutions for the homeless population, granting them the most vital services, while working toward ultimately greater goals for Gadsden and surrounding areas.
“You can do so much alone, but together you can do a lot more,” said Kent. “That’s our motto. We’re trying to work together as a team.”
“I would ask people to take a moment, open their eyes and look beyond where they are,” said Word. “See there are people in our city that have needs, and if we don’t meet those needs, who will? If I don’t help people, who will? You can’t assume somebody else will…if you know about it, step out and do something.”
Kent and Cole encouraged residents wanting to become involved in efforts to alleviate homelessness in Etowah County to volunteer and call operating shelters to discuss donations, what lacking areas require present fulfillment. To the men, women and children in Etowah County grappling with homelessness and those who may find themselves struggling, Kent and Cole sent a message.
“You’re loved,” Kent said. “You’re important and your life is worth living. There is hope, and there are opportunities for you. You just have to be willing to take advantage of those opportunities and do the right things.”
“I see you and I see the opportunity in you,” said Cole, who emphasized she finds it impossible to cease caring for others in her hometown, and who witnesses the potential in people. “You can do better and feel better. Don’t hinder yourself…help us help you.”