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Karen Olson was rushing to a business meeting when she passed a homeless woman on the street. On impulse, Karen bought her a sandwich.The woman, Millie, accepted the sandwich but asked for something more — a chance to be heard. Karen stayed with Millie and listened. What she heard made her understand that homelessness brought profound feelings of diminished self-worth and disconnection from society. Soon after, Karen and her two sons began delivering lunches to homeless people on the streets of New York.


When Karen learned that homelessness was affecting families right in her own community in New Jersey, she knew she had to do something. But this was much more than giving sandwiches. She brought together people in need and people who wanted to help. Existing community resources could provide shelter, meals, and housing. Volunteers could use their skills, knowledge, and compassion to help their homeless neighbors find employment, reconnect with society, and restore their dignity.


She approached the religious community. Congregations offered hospitality space within their buildings. The YMCA provided showers and a family Day Center. A car dealer discounted a van. The first interfaith hospitality network opened on October 27, 1986.


As word spread, more New Jersey congregations formed a second network. Other congregations were inspired to develop similar programs. In 1988, we formed the National Interfaith Hospitality Network to bring the program nationwide. In addition to shelter, meals, housing, and job-seeking support, our Affiliates began developing programs for transitional housing, childcare, and homelessness prevention. Nationally, we added programs like Just Neighbors and Family Mentoring.



Family Promise was awarded one of 21 Points of Light, out of a field of more than 4,500 nominees, by President and Barbara Bush, signifying Family Promise as one of the top volunteer agencies in the country. The award recognizes how one neighbor can help another, and calls upon the nation to take action in service to our fellow citizens.


A small group of folks in the Roanoke Valley, including Dan Dowdy, Daren Gunter and Katie Elmore, had heard about a program to help families experiencing homelessness.  They had heard that this program was easily replicated.  This program was Interfaith Hospitality Network, now known as Family Promise.  The group in Roanoke started a nonprofit in 1997 and took its first guests in 1998. 

Daren Gunter, our first Executive Director recalls,

"I remember opening in spring 1998, and working most closely with Dan Dowdy who was the Board President at the time.   Our office was located at Christ Episcopal Church. I was 24, owned only 1 suit, and was using a small computer with Windows 3.1. I had a pager of course :) We waited weeks and weeks for our first family. Then we had three families in short order.   Suddenly we had families but no Day Center. IHN owned a Ford Econoline 350 15-passenger van, 16 roll-away beds and not much else. But, we had an enthusiastic and long-suffering group of volunteers.  We set a day center up in the basement of Christ Church where we operated until we leased space at the VAMC [Veterans Administration Medical Center].   We soon realized that taking seats out of the van to move the cots wasn't doing the van, or volunteers, any favors. Thank goodness for the many volunteers who showed up with their utility trailers to help with moves. We were given a grant to buy a trailer and added our logo.  


We had several weeks early on when host congregations were not available. We had to go into "make-do" mode, and experienced incredible help from several congregations in putting a schedule together. We used the Marshall House several times when host congregations weren't available.
We added a second staff member in October 1998 to drive the van on weekends and be at the center. We added a case manager the following spring, I think.

 Family Promise was a consistent and supportive source of hope during the early days. The staff in New Jersey and directors from around the country  were so helpful. I can't leave them out.

 We also had a dynamite group of coordinators! There were so many people who stayed so many evenings and overnights to fill in holes when volunteers weren't available. So many people had a do-whatever-it-takes mentality. And, the families received so much love and concern from our coordinators and volunteers. Their approach was empathetic and personal. Families and volunteers were growing alongside one another...together. It was easy to see, very early on, that there was a special dynamic at work with IHN."


We changed our name, from Roanoke Valley Interfaith Hospitality Network to Family Promise of Greater Roanoke, to reflect our broad range of programs and our vision of ending family homelessness. The name refers to the promise, in the sense of commitment, which communities make to families in need. But it also refers to the promise, the potential, inherent in every family.

Family Promise 25th Anniversary Retrospective - "Sharing Our Dream, Keeping Our Promise"
Family Promise

Family Promise 25th Anniversary Retrospective - "Sharing Our Dream, Keeping Our Promise"

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