Karen Olson, founder of the Family Promise National Network, will be the featured speaker at the first benefit event for Family Promise of Grand Rapids. The benefit dinner is Thursday, April 18, 6:30 p.m., at the University Club in downtown Grand Rapids. The event is open to the public, and tickets are $50 in advance.

Olsen was a marketing executive in New York in 1981 when she bought a sandwich for a homeless woman she’d repeatedly seen on her way to work. She also stopped long enough to listen to the woman. The story changed Olsen’s life. She and her children handed out many more sandwiches to the homeless and began to understand what Olsen calls “the profound loss and disconnection that homelessness causes.”

She asked the religious community for help where she lived in Union County, New Jersey. The Interfaith Congregation provided shelter and meals for homeless children and their families. The YMCA gave them space for a day center where families could shower, and parents could seek housing and employment. Staff members and volunteers connected them to existing community resources with the goal of achieving lasting independence. The innovative interfaith model spread to other locations, and in 1986 the Interfaith Hospitality Network was formed, later renamed Family Promise. 

Today, Family Promise has expanded to 41 states with 182 affiliates and now involves more than 160,000 volunteers and 6,000 congregations of all religious faiths. Sixty percent of the individuals who have been helped have been children. The organization has an impressive 80 percent success rate. It is recognized nationally for its innovative and effective work in mobilizing volunteers.

Family Promise of Grand Rapids has followed Olson’s model with 30 faith communities forming a network of support for local families in need. It is the only local organization that takes homeless families in and focus’ on the changing face of homelessness – children.

Cheryl Schuch, executive director for Family Promise of Grand Rapids, says family homelessness is becoming more and more prevalent in our community. Families with children are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, making up over 50 percent of those who are homeless in Kent County.

Since its inception in 1997, Family Promise of Grand Rapids has helped more than 1,600 children and 850 families who have faced the crisis of homelessness.

Tickets for the benefit dinner are $50. To find out more about Karen Olson and Family Promise, visit www.familypromise.org. For more information on the benefit dinner, simply visit www.familypromisegr.org. There are numerous ways to become involved with Family Promise of Grand Rapids such as volunteering time, donating needed items, or contributing financially.