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From shelter client to leader

Open House Ministries’ new executive director came to program as homeless single mother

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
5 Photos
Open House Ministries executive director Renee Stevens visits Tyshawn Martin, 4, in the child care room at the shelter. Tyshawn was having trouble settling down for a nap, so Stevens was called in to soothe him.
Open House Ministries executive director Renee Stevens visits Tyshawn Martin, 4, in the child care room at the shelter. Tyshawn was having trouble settling down for a nap, so Stevens was called in to soothe him. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Open House Ministries’ new executive director, Renee Stevens, understands where people entering its shelter are coming from and why it can take time to build trust. That’s because in 1999, she entered the shelter with her three daughters.

Then a 29-year-old single mother, she had been living on the streets while the girls stayed with family. They were able to reunite and stabilize at one of Open House Ministries’ studio apartments with help from the staff and intensive programming.

“Despite of how broken I was when I got here, they loved me,” Stevens said.

“I have always believed in Renee,” said Wayne Garlington, the former executive director.

He’s worked at Open House for 14 years and remembers when Stevens was a client. Stevens embraces her background and uses it to inform her work at Open House, he said.

“We were just so impressed by her,” Garlington said. “You could just tell there was something special there.”

Stevens was hired in 2005 and has moved through the ranks. She’s worked as part of the overnight staff, at the front desk and in case management. Most recently, she was leading the case management team. Now that she’s taken over the private faith-based nonprofit — 17 years after she first entered its program — she’ll oversee the 34-person staff.

She’d like to see more interventions with children, who represent about half of the people staying at the shelter. Currently, there are after-school programs, youth groups and cooking classes, but Stevens would like to bolster the programs. A new van was recently donated to shuttle kids around to activities.

Much of the programming at Open House focuses on getting the head of household to a point where they can independently support their family.

Open House has seen an increase in demand for its services, particularly over the last year. There is a nine-month waitlist to get into the program, which signals to Stevens that there’s not enough affordable housing in the community.

Garlington is still working at Open House Ministries, though his new title is project manager. Before officially retiring, he wants to see through a big project: building a three-story multipurpose family resource center on the gravel lot next to the shelter. It’s been his dream for over a decade, and it’s finally coming together.

He said it’ll likely be a couple more weeks until they get building permits from the city. The goal is to start ground work next month. The 15,558-square-foot building will have meeting spaces, classrooms, offices and a gym where children can play. Currently, offices and meeting spaces occupy a handful of apartments in the 36-unit shelter. So, when the new building is complete, it’ll free up apartments to serve more families.

Stevens has seen her life completely change from being in Open House Ministries’ program. When she was homeless, she circled through bad relationship after bad relationship. For the last eight years, however, she’s been happily married.

Her three daughters, now grown, are seeing successes, as well. One works at the shelter’s day care, another is working on her master’s degree in social work at Eastern Washington University, and her youngest just graduated from Clark College.

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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