Every time Ontario Johnson steps up to the door of her home, she gives thanks to God. “When I turn the key, I look toward the heavens,” she said. “I can’t get enough of praising Him.”
Just over a year ago, Ontario was living at Mary Ellen’s Hearth, Embrace Alabama Kids’ newest ministry partner that provides transitional housing for homeless women and children. “Being in your car or on the street can be very dangerous,” the first-time homeowner said. “If it hadn’t been for this program, I don’t know what situation I would have been in.”
Embrace Alabama Kids joined forces with the longtime Montgomery ministry earlier this year to ensure longevity for the program and stability for the families. It also allowed Embrace Alabama Kids to expand its reach and serve more of God’s children. “Partnerships are part of our strategic plan, and this was a natural fit for us,” said Dr. Blake Horne, President and CEO of Embrace Alabama Kids.
“Family homelessness is the second leading cause of children being in foster care, behind abuse and neglect,” he said.
“If kids enter the foster system, there’s a 50 percent chance they’ll grow up in the foster system.” That’s why family preservation – equipping families to stay together in a safe, healthy home – is an important part of Embrace Alabama Kids mission.
MEH provides supportive services that help mothers live independently and provide a loving home. They offer instruction on life skills, financial literacy, parenting, cooking and nutrition, all while meeting the basic needs of shelter, food, clothing, medical care and a spiritual foundation.
The families can stay for up to two years, allowing them to find employment, save money and pay off debt. “Our goal is to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, and you can’t do that overnight,” said Kim Bullard, MEH’s Board President. “It takes time to change patterns and habits and what you’ve known all your life.”
MEH is named for Bullard’s late mother-in- law, Mary Ellen Harrell Bullard, a longtime volunteer and a lay leader in the Methodist Church at the local, state, national and international levels. The ministry, founded in 1904, has taken many forms and had several name changes, but the focus has always been on women and children in need.
Formerly known as the Nellie Burge Community Center, the ministry most recently provided child care for families in a nearby low-income housing development. When the development was relocated in 2010, Mary Ellen’s Hearth at the Nellie Burge Community Center was born. Day care rooms became bedrooms, and the focus turned to self- sufficiency.
Ontario already had a full-time job and a rental home, but she had nowhere to go when the owner decided to quickly sell. She got on a waiting list for subsidized housing and tried unsuccessfully to find a shelter with room for her and her son. She even considered giving custody to family members. “I wasn’t going to make him live in the car,” she said. “I wouldn’t want him to go through that.”
A friend told her about MEH, and she threw herself into the program. “The money I could have spent on rent, I put it toward savings,” she said. She paid off debt and worked on restoring her credit, raising her score from 605 to 755.
She found the courage to start house hunting, dismissing several because they were in unsafe areas, before finding the perfect one. “I looked around the neighborhood and thought, ‘My child could ride a bike around here.’ And then I went inside and it felt like home,” Ontario said.
“My first night here, I cried. I looked around and tears of joy were falling out of my eyes.”
Both Bullard and Horne are grateful the new partnership will allow the program to continue to offer homes, healing and hope.
“We’re working with a like-minded group that shares our values and goals of providing these families with a place where they can better themselves and find peace, comfort and certainty when there hasn’t been a lot of that,” Bullard said. “It was definitely God’s timing.”