Under the leadership of a former client, Christian HELP celebrates more than a quarter-century of aid in our community
Some time ago, a woman in need approached the Christian HELP employment and resource center in Casselberry. Many who visit the nonprofit faith-based agency are down on their luck, maybe even homeless. But this particular client was a high-level professional with a four-page résumé.
“She said, ‘I know I’m not a typical client,’” recalls Vickie Martin, executive director of Christian HELP. “And I told her there is no typical client. Everyone has a story.”
Vickie should know. Her initial contact with the agency was as a client, herself, way back in 1998.
Vickie was not homeless or jobless at the time. In fact, she had a successful career running a parochial preschool in Longwood. But a series of unfortunate circumstances and poor personal choices had left her struggling financially and emotionally. Vickie felt adrift.
Christian HELP, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary in our community, is not a quick-fix pit stop. Vickie spent about two years there, off and on, as a client.
“I got counseled to bring out the best in me, to manage my finances better,” she says. “They did not let me quit or compromise my work ethic. I had to find a way to balance my mess.”
Vickie began taking classes and earned a degree in human resources leadership. In 2005, she became part of the senior leadership team at First Baptist Church of Longwood.
In 2012, Vickie returned to Christian HELP, this time as a member of its board of directors, and she quickly became chairman. When the position of executive director opened up, Vickie was asked to apply. She resisted any special treatment and was interviewed along with other candidates.
“I told them, ‘I want you to pick me because I am the right fit, not because you know me,’” Vickie says, and that’s exactly what the board did.
Vickie acknowledges that her personal problems in the past help her empathize with new clients walking in the door today. Vickie clearly remembers when she was hosting visitors at her house and the lights went out due to unpaid utility bills. She frequented food pantries, and she looked out the window one morning to see that her yellow station wagon had been repossessed, forcing her to get a ride to work from her mother.
“I’ve been through all those struggles; those are humbling experiences,” Vickie says, choking up. “I appreciate what people are going through.”
Since its inception, Christian HELP has provided services to more than a quarter-million people. Last year alone, the agency helped more than 7,500 people get jobs. It gave 254 families a holiday meal in December and provided Christmas presents for 669 children.
The agency attends to clients’ spiritual needs but also offers an array of employment services, including career coaching, employment seminars, job leads, and even appropriate clothes for job interviews.
If someone is looking for a quick handout and nothing more, Christian HELP is not the place. It does have a food pantry, and no one in need will leave hungry, but the agency has evolved from a time when it simply helped people get through a crisis, Vickie explains.
“We were like an emergency room,” she says. “And if that’s all people get, they never get well, and it starts getting expensive.”
Today, with the help of personal care managers, Christian HELP takes a comprehensive look at what roadblocks its clients are facing and how to take tangible steps toward a brighter future. Some clients suffer from what is called episodic homelessness – usually the result of a job layoff, health problems, family conflicts, or other factors. Some are not unemployed but underemployed. Some are just new in town or need help updating a resume.
In some cases, clients may be working three part-time, low-paying jobs, sharing an apartment and driving a clunker.
“They’re in survival mode and forgot to plan for the future,” says Vickie. “They are one crisis away from losing it all. You have to ask yourself, ‘Where is this going?’ If you’re good with it, that’s great. But if what you’re doing isn’t working out for you, we can help get you where you need to be.”
Whether the clients are homeless or highly educated executives, Christian HELP requires one thing from those seeking aid: an understanding that they will have to do some hard work. Christian HELP can’t do all the heavy lifting.
“It’s a partnership,” Vickie says. “We look for people that have that drive and tenacious spirit. We don’t pull people into their future. We want to be beside them.”
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