COVINGTON - The Rev. Clara Lett and members of her staff at Rainbow Community Center recently took a trip to Washington, D.C., to minister to the homeless and attend a national conference where President George W. Bush spoke.
Lett, along with Minister Cheryl Heard and Pastor Patricia White, was invited to attend the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Innovations in Effective Compassion National Conference from June 25 to 30. The invite came as a result of the work of Rainbow Community Center, which operates a food bank and holds programs for the less fortunate in Newton County, and the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter. Both services operate under the umbrella of Rainbow Covenant Ministries, under Lett's direction.
At the conference, Lett and her staff were joined by members of the president's cabinet, OFBCI Director Jay Hein and more than 1,000 public and private sector leaders. The purpose of the conference was to explore and expand the ways the OFBCI is transforming government's approach to human need, in partnership with faith-based and community organizations, to solve problems from addiction and homelessness to malaria and HIV/AIDS.
The highlight of the conference was a surprise appearance by President Bush, who expressed gratitude for the work of faith-based programs and encouraged those in attendance to seek federal funding for their initiatives.
In addition to the conference, Lett and her staff joined members of The Nazarene Church in Washington on a mission to help feed and care for the homeless living in one of the local parks.
There, they fed 400 people and set up trailers where they gave haircuts and pedicures and allowed people to take showers.
Lett said the trip was eye-opening: She saw many people sleeping under bridges and realized Newton County is well on its way to that reality. There are already people sleeping under the Alcovy Road bridge, she said.
Lett said they are seeing an increase in people needing shelter, especially the second week of every month, when eviction notices are typically issued.
"People just can't make it right now. It's not that they're not trying, but (jobs) aren't there," Lett said, noting that she has had to be more lenient on a requirement that residents at the shelter find a job within three weeks.
There has also been a significant increase in food distributed by the food bank, which is open Mondays and Fridays.
"Right now, there's a large increase in people who need food. Their food stamps are not taking them through the month," Lett said.
While the food bank used to serve 10 families per week, now it serves between 30 and 40 families, she said.
"Now you have to make a choice of whether to put gas in your tank or buy food," she said.
The increase in demand is putting a strain on food bank funds, which are obtained largely from donations from the community, Lett said.
The Atlanta Food Bank charges 18 cents per pound of food, and currently between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds of food is being purchased every two weeks, at a cost of about $500 each time, she said.
The food bank did receive a boost in June, when a federal grant allowed the distribution of 18,000 pounds of food, benefiting 232 families and more than 800 individuals.
But the food bank and shelter are still in critical need of help.
"People really need to tap into what the need is," said Heard. "There are so many people in Newton County in need."
Rainbow Ministries is currently seeking donations of food, towels, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant and underwear.
Lett hopes increased demands for shelter and food will be better met when Rainbow moves to a new location on Turner Lake Circle in late fall.
The new site will have more space, she said, and perhaps most importantly, could open the door for more state and federal funding.
The shelter has been unable to obtain grants because of ongoing litigation with the city of Porterdale, but the city has agreed to drop its lawsuit now that the shelter is moving, Lett said.
Anyone who would like to donate to the shelter or food bank can drop off items at 9 Hemlock Street in Porterdale.
For more information, call 770-787-8519.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.