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Newark Empowerment Center: A hand up for those who need it most

Dec 23, 2014 09:58PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt

Courtesy photo Marcus is the the assistant director of the Friendship House. He was one of this year's recipients of the City of Newark's Jefferson Awards for his service to the community.

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

In March of 2007, the Friendship House in Wilmington, Del. partnered with the Newark Homeless Coalition to open the Newark Empowerment Center as a way to provide support and assistance to local residents who are having a difficult time meeting their basic needs.

No one, not even a longtime Newark resident like Marc Marcus, understood at the time how many people in the area needed help securing food, shelter, and clothing.

“I was surprised to see the level of need in the community,” explained Marcus, the assistant director of the Friendship House who helps run the Newark Empowerment Center. “It’s hard to see some of the suffering. People don’t have what they need.”

Over the last seven years, the Newark Empowerment Center has done its part in helping to meet those needs for more than 2,500 people who reside in Newark. Marcus splits his time between work at the Friendship House and the Newark Empowerment Center, leading a small staff of Friendship House employees and volunteers. The assistance that the Newark Empowerment Center provides is always a hand up, not a hand out.

“Our philosophy,” said Marcus, “is to always walk with people. We’ll help anyone who is willing to do what they need to do to help themselves.”

The Friendship House has been serving Delaware for 27 years, operating a men’s day center, a women’s day center, a men’s transitional housing facility, a women’s transitional housing facility, and the Andrew’s Place Emergency Shelter. When preliminary discussions were held to determine how to help people who were struggling in the Newark area, several different ideas were considered, including a men’s shelter, but Marcus explained that even if a shelter is available, it doesn’t mean that the men and women who find themselves without a home will seek it out.

Some of the people involved in those early discussions were members of faith groups in Newark who were looking for ways to help the homeless. Richard Waibel, a longtime member of the Newark United Methodist Church, was one of them. He recalls that discussions and planning took place over a period of about two years before the concept of the Newark Empowerment Center took shape and became a reality.

“We had this idea of doing something for the homeless in the community,” Waibel explained. “I’ve been active in the Newark United Methodist Church a long time. So I was very aware that people were coming in to churches asking for help every day.”

The requests for help that the churches were receiving far surpassed the help that the churches could provide, and it was placing a drain on the churches’ resources as well as the staff members. Many of the people seeking help were dealing with handicaps or didn’t have the education that they needed to get jobs that would enable them to support themselves. Other people were battling drug and alcohol addiction. There was a strong sentiment that help needed to be provided to these people.

Having one centralized location where that help could be offered was appealing. A fundraising campaign to get the project off the ground was successful, quickly raising over $15,000, and the decision was made to open the Newark Empowerment Center three days a week on a trial basis.

Waibel and other organizers quickly discovered how great the need was in the community.

“I never thought that the needs were that big in the community,” Waibel said. “There is an ongoing need to keep people from sliding off the edge of the cliff.”

The center was housed in a small Sunday School-size classroom in the Newark United Methodist Church.

In the first few months that the center was open, five or six people would stop by for help each day. But that number grew steadily, especially when the great recession hit, and the center’s hours were expanded to 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. each Monday through Friday.

Now, on a typical weekday, Marcus said, between 25 and 45 come in for assistance.

“It’s a walk-in space,” Marcus said, “so for us that’s a lot.”

The Newark Empowerment Center provides help in a variety of ways, starting with the most basic needs—food, shelter, and clothing. People can come in for bag lunches, a hot beverage, or sanctuary from the elements. Staff members can help people fill out job applications or secure identification cards. Men and women who are battling drug or alcohol problems can also consult with the staff and get referrals for addiction recovery programs. There is a table with three computers set up for people to use as well. This can be helpful for people who are trying to apply for a job or secure housing. Emergency financial assistance is also available for rent or utilities, though this kind of assistance is limited. Persons asking for financial assistance at any of the participating faith communities may be referred to the Newark Empowerment Center for a personal interview with the Friendship House staff person. Persons seeking financial help must reside in the greater Newark area, demonstrate that their income normally matches their expenses, and show how the funds requested will resolve their current financial crisis.

“We try to help people as much as we can,” Marcus explained. “Some people may not be ready for help, but maybe we can get them into a shelter or a recovery program.”

The Newark Empowerment Center is staffed largely by a few Friendship House employees and a group of volunteers.

“We have a dedicated force of volunteers, which is wonderful,” Marcus explained.

Waibel said that Marcus does an admirable job of leading the volunteers, and serves the Newark Empowerment Center well with his intelligence and big heart. In 2014, Marcus was a recipient of the Jefferson Award, an honor that is handed out by the City of Newark each year to those who provide exception public service to the community. Marcus was recognized for the way that he demonstrates selfless compassion while doing his job.

A release from the city stated that, “Marc accepts people where they are, respects their dignity, and encourages them to get to a better place. His patience, mentoring, and sound counseling never fail, and his extraordinary balance of gentle caring and tough love are greatly appreciated.”

Marcus, however, points to the staff, the volunteers, and the enormous cooperation among the 20 or so faith organizations in town as reasons for the Newark Empowerment Center’s success.

“Newark is really incredible at that,” Marcus said of the collaboration. “The Newark community is very supportive.”

The Newark United Methodist Church, for example, donates the space to house the center and the other churches donate all types of things to the effort.

The winter sometimes presents extra problems for people who can’t meet their own basic needs.

The Newark Empowerment Center offers a “Code Purple” sanctuary whenever the nighttime temperature falls below 20 degrees. One of the churches affiliated with the center will open a room from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The host church provides a light supper in the evening, hot beverages throughout the night, and transportation for those who need it in the morning.

Waibel said that during the winter of 2012-2013, there were 13 nights when Code Purple was put into effect. That equated to 196 people nights spent in one of the churches. But in the more harsh winter of 2013-2014, there were 34 nights of frigid temperatures that amounted to 597 people nights. On one night alone, Jan. 8, 2014, there were 27 people who sought shelter at the church.

“That would have been 27 people who would have been out on a pretty cold night,” Waibel said.

The staff at the Newark Empowerment Center sees the level of need in the community up close.

Marcus said that the sharp economic downtown in 2007 and 2008 created a “new normal” where there is simply more need than what can be met.

“We’re seeing a lot more people,” Marcus said. “On the financial end, we don’t have the resources to meet all the needs.”

It’s an imperfect world. Some of the things that could really make a difference in people’s lives—more job opportunities, for instance, or more people being able to overcome addictions—are unlikely to take place anytime soon.

So the hard work of helping those in need continues, one case at a time.

Marcus said that the greatest satisfaction comes from helping others. For example, shortly after the Newark Empowerment Center first opened, there was a young man who was homeless. He first came to the Newark Empowerment Center at the age of 18 or 19, seeking some assistance. He was staying in DART bike lots when he could, and was spending the rest of the time on the streets. The staff was able to help him get a job and a place to live. He did so well that he was soon able to provide for himself and even sent the organization a donation.

“We have a lot of people who do that kind of thing,” Marcus explained.

Waibel relishes the success stories, the times when the Newark Empowerment Center helps a person get back on the right path, and he said that the community support through the years has been incredible—in fact, none of the good work would be possible without that help and support of the community. Waibel said that he is very thankful to everyone who has helped out with the Newark Empowerment Center over the years, and he is hopeful that the center can continue to play a role in making the community stronger. There will always be people who need a hand up, so it would be great, Waibel said, if the Newark Empowerment Center could always be there for them.

“I really hope it perpetuates itself,” he explained.

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

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