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A vision to help, and a drive to serve those most in need

A vision to help, and a drive to serve those most in need

Missions and Outreach

Anyone who gets an email from Rev. Mary Downey gets some wisdom to go with it, such as this: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, in order that you may know the HOPE to which He has called you.” -- Ephesians 1:18.

The United Methodist Deacon, who has taken social services for the working poor to a new level in Osceola County, lives by those words.

When she started the Community Hope Center in 2013, Downey envisioned a mom and pop nonprofit that would serve a few hundred people a year.

Instead, that center now serves between 9,000 and 10,000 annually, mostly those in the tourism industry, many with children, living in the rundown local hotels and motels that surround Disney World.

It was featured in a documentary last year called The Florida Project, which featured Downey and those her center serves.

Downey, who last week was named the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Floridian of the Year, does not push a program onto the center’s clients.

Instead, she asks what it can do for them, how it can help them get where they need to be.

In many cases, that is helping them get proper identification, seek housing, and serve their mind, body, and spirit, said Shelley Lauten, who recently stepped down as CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.

“Mary is one of the only ones with the vision of having an organization that thinks about the whole person first and then surrounds them with the services they need,” Lauten said.

“It is very holistic. You spend two seconds with Mary, and you know her heart and her passion for serving this population and truly serving them mind, body spirit.”

The center is now expanding its mission and plans to build 200 multi-family units on land donated by the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
U.S. Congressman Darren Soto and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visit the Community Hope Center to praise Rev. Downey and the CHC for the response to victims displaced by Hurricane Maria.
“What Mary does is bring people together,” said Will Cooper, who serves as chief operating officer for the Community Hope Center. “That is a big part of the work we do and a big part of the work she does as a deacon.

“Bringing people together for a common goal, whether to recognize what is going on in the community with homelessness and poverty or getting people engaged in how they can help. She preaches and teaches and talks to folks about the call of Christ to do the work and be in our communities.”

Downey is humbled by the larger community’s recognition of her service, recognition she never sought.

“The award is pretty humbling in a lot of ways,” she said. “I am mostly just honored people see the work our team does and acknowledge that and celebrates it.
“I never really know with these stories how to frame it. We are doing the work and trying to bring as much attention as we can” to the community’s plight.”

She started the center with the help of the Community Presbyterian Church of Celebration and has since partnered with the Florida United Methodist Conference, where she serves as a deacon. The center also receives grants and help from individuals and Methodist churches.

She specifically called out the Community of Faith UMC, which sponsored the center at Christmas and raised a little over $14,000. The Spring of Life UMC conducted a year-end campaign and raised more than $4,000.

The primary emphasis of the Community Hope Center is to serve those living in their cars or motels and hotels along Osceola County’s 192 Corridor.

“This program works to restore dignity and self-sufficiency to those in need in our community through a holistic approach to case management, funds assistance, and life skills,” its website states.

“The mission of the Community Hope Center is to provide assistance to all of those in need in our community. While we’re not a crisis center, we abide by a ‘no wrong door’ policy and are committed to providing resources or referrals for those who are actively searching for assistance and who are willing to forge a path towards self-sufficiency.”

Downey also provides a path for others who want to help.

“Mary was one of my very early teachers,” said Lauten, who had no background in social work before going to the Commission on Homelessness. “One of the issues in providing services to people is that providing services to help people with getting homes is extremely siloed. Services tend to not look at the whole person or the root causes.

“With very few exceptions, I became a fan of hers right away. Her first question to people who come in for services is, ‘What are your hopes and dreams?’ That is truly exceptional and, in my mind, very visionary in thinking about the person and not having a preconceived notion about who they are and what they need.”

The center serves three major populations.

“One of our main clientele, and that is someone working honestly in support of tourism, the working poor. A single mom and a couple kids living in a hotel room or doubled up with family sleeping in their living room,” Cooper said.

“They are trying to live out the dream that is put forth by Central Florida of fun, excitement and escape. That works for visitors, but not in the reality of their own lives.”

Without the Community Hope Center, there is a lack of services for those people.

“They fall between the cracks of government assistance and local programs,” Cooper said. “We try to be there as a support network for them.”

Everybody’s story is different. They cannot all be easily categorized by one set of circumstances.

“The goal is to get people housed,” Downey said. “Maybe they need to increase income, but if they don’t have the right documentation or financial literacy or education goals or mental health services, we connect them to organizations that can help.”

In its next large endeavor, the center is getting rezoning in place for its new 5-acre multi-family “financially accessible apartment complex,” which will serve its clients.

“Our Methodist folks are super supportive of what we do,” Downey said, and the more churches who kick in to help, the more services can be provided.

To learn more, visit 
--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer in Valrico.

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