The car barely made it into town before breaking down. The family—with children—was stranded on the side of the road with nowhere to live.

Family Promise volunteer Pam Smith remembers the first day that family arrived at Immanuel Baptist Church for a hot meal and somewhere to sleep. And she remembers when, months later, they moved out of homelessness and into transitional housing. The relationships she formed with that family are so strong they still keep in touch.

Family Promise of Santa Rosa’s Interfaith Hospitality Network works with nearly a dozen congregations in Pace and Milton to provide solutions to homelessness for families in Santa Rosa County. Each congregation provides food and shelter for one week at a time so families have a hot dinner and safe bed each evening and on weekends. The program was started in 2006.

The Family Promise Day Center in Milton provides a home base for job hunting. A parent experiencing illness, divorce, or job loss may be suddenly scrambling to find employment and a safe place for their kids to live. That’s where Family Promise steps in.

“It’s a daunting situation to be evicted,” says Shane Nation, the director of Family Promise in Santa Rosa County. You’re down to couch surfing or living in a car, or hoping someone will help you out. We work with children and their families who find themselves in a crisis and homeless. We can start helping them get on their feet again.”

Parents in the program can focus on finding employment, saving money, moving into transitional housing, and getting back on their feet. They are evaluated at 30, 60 and 90 days to make sure they’re progressing toward their goals. As many as 14 people, including children, can be in the program at once, and nearly 200 people were served in Family Promise’s first five years alone. Getting into the program is a process that takes about a week.

“It’s so encouraging to me to see parents breathe a sigh of relief when they know where their kids are going to eat and sleep at night,” Nation says. “We’re very protective of the families we do serve, so we can’t just bring someone in off the street and toss them into the mix and hope everything’s OK.”

He’s especially proud of the way the program is inclusive of both children and parents, pointing out that no other organization in the area takes quite the same ‘whole family’ approach. Nation says he’s motivated to encourage parents who are struggling through a tough time, and he’s looking for several more churches to help lighten the load. That would mean each church only needs to host families one week each quarter.

“It’s really a mission opportunity here, in our community,” he says. “It gives congregations an opportunity to give back to their communities and to families that are in crisis right now.”

Pam Smith began volunteering with Family Promise about five years ago and has helped coordinate the program at Immanuel Baptist Church for over two years. Smith, who is the director of elementary education for the Santa Rosa County School District and has worked at several Santa Rosa elementary and primary schools, was motivated to volunteer because she saw, first hand, the effects of homelessness in students at her schools.

“For me, the connection has to do with seeing the kids come to school and knowing how difficult it is for them to learn when their home situation is in crisis,” Smith says. “We have kids come in and we find out they’ve been sleeping in a tent or their car, or they’re bouncing around from one person to another, and they’re hurting. But we don’t usually get a chance to see how we’re helping a situation like that. I really like the opportunity to make a real, small difference, and I think that’s why all the volunteers are faithful to the program.”

The coordination effort starts about six weeks before the church’s host week, Smith explains. A meal and volunteer schedule is set up. When the families arrive, a coordinator is there to welcome them and unlock the church. One of the volunteers is always there.

“We just make sure they see us each day so if they have needs or they have problems, they can contact us,” she says.

Volunteers make sure the sleeping area is equipped with inflated mattresses and clean sheets, the shower facilities have clean towels, in addition to a hot meal each night and lunch on weekends. A volunteer stays with the families around the clock in case they need anything. It takes quite a few volunteers to make it work, but it’s worth it to see the families move from a crisis situation to transitional housing, get employed, and finally move back into a home with a manageable payment.

“I don’t think people realize the number of people in financial crisis,” Smith says. “It’s not as visible in this community. District-wide, we have quite a few homeless families. The heartbreaking thing is that these folks have children that they’re trying to take care of, with no resources, often. You really do feel a sense a how important the program is to them at that point in their lives. I wish people had that opportunity to see that directly.”

To learn more about the program and how to volunteer, donate, or get help, visit

Contact Family Promise of Santa Rosa at (850) 623-5300 or 6796 Alice St. in Milton.