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Disney grant to fund ‘Hotels to Home’ ministry

Disney grant to fund ‘Hotels to Home’ ministry

Fresh Expressions Social Justice
Disney World cast and Community Hope Center staff pose for a celebration photo.

Editor's note: Those framed in the featured photo are, left to right, Will Cooper, COO; Angie Etman, CDO, and Rev. Mary Downey, founder and CEO of Community Hope Center.

Just east of Walt Disney World—“The Most Magical Place on Earth’’—there’s a traffic-heavy east-west highway with every fast-food place imaginable, shops pushing Florida T-shirts (three for $10), timeshare properties and an endless stream of tourist motels.

It’s U.S. Route 192.

Although it’s in the Magic Kingdom’s shadow, it’s also a spot where Osceola County’s less fortunate citizens have gathered. Some live in the motels, while others stay in cars. Many are homeless.

But thanks to an ongoing relationship between Disney and the Community Hope Center, which targets solutions for Osceola County families grappling with homelessness and poverty, there’s more hope than ever.

The Community Hope Center, sometimes known as Hope 192, recently received a $75,000 Disney grant that will be used to start a program known as “Hotels to Home.’’

Rev. Mary Downey will receive the "40 Under 40" award from the Orlando Business Journal on November 14. Mickey and Rev. Downey celebrated the grant to Community Hope Center.

Rev. Mary Downey is a United Methodist Church deacon who is the founder and chief executive officer of the Community Hope Center. She said there are families who can afford home costs, but they are held back because they can’t afford the bundle of the first month’s rent, utilities and associated deposits.

“We’ll have a way to give that little needed boost to start a new life,’’ Downey said.

Downey figures that boost will require an average of $5,000 per family so that multiple lives will be changed. That transition to a more permanent home situation will include follow-up case management to ensure proper stability and maintenance.

Disney has been a longtime partner for the Community Hope Center, which was founded in 2013 and won Disney’s prestigious Bob Allen Award, presented to a nonprofit organization that practices innovation. Over the years, Disney provided several grants to the organization, along with regular donations and sponsorship of its events.

“Disney has done so much to help, even though a lot of times people would like to put blame on them,’’ Downey said. “The truth is, poverty in our community is an issue for all of us. Tourism is our top industry, but it certainly carries a double-edged sword.

“It’s hard to build a market around tourism, especially when there’s a recession because our community doesn’t have anything to fall back on. It’s just the reality in Central Florida. I don’t dwell on it. It’s what we know to be true, and I think we’re all charged with ways to address the reality.’’

That has been Downey’s charge for several years.

When she became a UMC deacon, she was called to address justice.

“As I began my career in this community, I saw homelessness and poverty, but I wasn’t seeing it addressed in a collaborative and holistic way,’’ Downey said. “There were some nonprofits doing great work, but they weren’t connected. The churches weren’t partnering with them. There were lots of relief efforts—feeding and clothing people—but no real solutions.

“So this became part of my calling. How can we take things that are going well, build upon them, and strengthen them in a way where we can streamline services? How can we address people holistically from the moment they are homeless to the moment of getting them into housing? What barriers need to be addressed?’’

She was asked to join a church team, but she really wanted to establish an organization to address needs along the 192 corridor, a one-stop-shop of sorts. Downey found a group in the affluent community of Celebration that was committed to paying staff salaries and start-up costs. That’s how it began about seven years ago.

Downey figured the Community Hope Center would serve about 300 people in its first year.

With a staff of two full-timers, it served 6,000.

Now it serves about 11,000 people annually.

Downey’s formal UMC appointment is with the Community Hope Center, although she has a secondary appointment with the Spring of Life UMC in Lake Nona. She’s quick to point out that the church has a senior pastor and associate pastor.

“I just hang out and can do whatever is needed,’’ she said with a laugh.

Will Cooper, chief operations officer, celebrates receiving the 2019 Disney Grant Collaborative Partner award to the Community Hope Center.

Downey felt the pull to become a deacon, a position called to word, service, justice and compassion.

“Primarily, our role is to demonstrate what it looks like to be Christ in the world,’’ Downey said. “I see my role as bridging the gap between the church and world. There are people who need to see the face of Christ and who need God’s grace, even though they never walk through the doors of their local congregation.

“When you’re a deacon, you have a unique opportunity to pastor outside of the church’s doors. We are seeking people out, connecting with them, showing them that God cares about them.’’

Downey takes her role seriously, and she executes it tirelessly.

Recently, the Florida United Methodist Church Conference gifted five acres of nearby land (the site of a closed church) to the Community Hope Center. Downey wants to redevelop it into housing units.

“I have a real passion for affordable housing as a fresh expression,’’ Downey said. “It’s a big part of the vision. It’s still a ways away, but this is my heart. This is what I was called to do.’’

There’s planning ahead, along with lots of fundraising.

One day—maybe a day as soon as next spring—there will be a groundbreaking for those housing units. She’d like to reserve a shovel for the bishop.

“It will be a big moment,’’ she said.

A magical moment.

—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.

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