‘We walk with people as much as we can’May 23, 2022 12:02PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:40
This is a profile of one man’s 30-year odyssey of decency and selflessness for his fellow brothers and sisters, that for reasons the reader will soon understand must begin with the hardened facts of reality.
In statistics compiled in 2020 by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an estimated 1,165 Delawareans experience homelessness on any given day. Of that total, were family households, were veterans, were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.
According to the Housing Alliance of Delaware, an agency committed to working in collaboration with its partners and stakeholders to end homelessness, the numbers are even higher. “Each year, more than 3,000 people will experience homelessness in Delaware,” its website reads, and the homeless can be found “sleeping on streets, in cars, abandoned buildings, emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.”
But this is also the story about Marc Marcus, and the influences that have led him, the organizations he has led and the many people he has helped over the past three decades.
A native of Stanton, Marcus grew up beneath the enveloping influence of his mother Mary, who spent her life dedicated not just to her family but to her community and her church. To the young boy, his mother’s dedication toward others was inspiring, and he carried that lesson with him when he became the owner of a furniture service company and furniture rental business in New Castle and Stanton.
The act of selflessness was infectious, and as Marcus was about to enter his 50s, he felt the calling to share it with others far less fortunate.
‘Being of service to them’
“I had been in business a long time, and the church I was part of – St. Mark’s United Methodist Church -- was hiring a minister to do visitation,” Marcus said. “I was on the interview committee and decided I really wanted to take on the job, so I resigned from the committee and took the job. I had enjoyed being in business for a long time, but I wanted to have a little more interaction with helping people and being of service to them.”
Soon after, Marcus began volunteering with Friendship House, a Wilmington-based agency founded in 1987, providing assistance and advocacy for the homeless population of Delaware, and seven years later, Marcus began to take a step back from business and became a volunteer at Friendship House.
It was there where Marcus met Bill Perkins, the agency’s long-time executive director.
“I learned so much just by watching the way Bill interacted with people and the selfless way he did it, especially for those who were experiencing homelessness and had lost all of their foundation and support,” Marcus said. “I saw Bill begin to build these individuals up and champion them, and just listen to them.”
As Friendship House grew, so did Marcus’ role at the agency. He joined its board of directors, became the board’s vice president and eventually was named assistant executive director. Quickly, he found himself at the helm of an organization that serves more than 10,000 people annually with the support of community and faith partners and programs and initiatives; provides free clothing to the community; offers financial support to those struggling with rent, utilities and medical bills; offers transitional housing for those re-entering self-sufficiency; and operates four empowerment centers that work with over 4,000 clients every year.
One of those empowerment centers is on Main Street in Newark, on the second floor of the Newark United Methodist Church.
An empowerment center grows in Newark
In 2007, Richard Waibel, a longtime member of Newark United Methodist Church, led a small group of members of other places of faith and agencies in Newark to create the Empowerment Center inside the church on Main Street.
In the 15 years since the doors first opened, the Newark Empowerment Center serves as a lifeline to an often marginalized and invisible population.
Housed on the church’s second floor and financed in part by donations from the Newark community, the Newark Empowerment Center staff meets with an average of 30 people a day – about 700 a year. The Center provides hospitality, a sanctuary from the elements, hot beverages and bag lunches, mail and phone service, assistance with getting identification, bus tickets to job interviews and consultation and referral on everything from financial assistance to medical needs to finding transitional housing.
For many who seek the services of the Empowerment Center, their first step through the doors is the most difficult, largely because they arrive carrying the invisible scars of shame, guilt, sadness and desperation that often accompany their predicament. Whether a client is seeking information about jobs, transitional housing or any other service, Marcus said the Empowerment Center is not a place of judgment, but of listening.
“Our mission for everyone is to say, ‘Here is where you are and we’re willing to support you where you are right now,’” Marcus said. “When they first walk in, some will share much of their lives and some do not. It doesn’t matter. We will still work with them, and we will get them to understand someone truly cares for them. We let them know the Empowerment Center is a place where they can share what they want, and we will work wherever they are and whatever they are doing.”
“The church is very focused on the needs of those who live in Newark area, but having Friendship House and the Newark Empowerment Center here makes it much easier for us to help reach people where they are, that gives them the infrastructure that we don’t have,” said Robert Cappiello, business manager at United Methodist Church. “It is a wonderful partnership.”
One of the largest initiatives Marcus has created for Friendship House and the Newark Empowerment Center has been the Code Purple program, which provides shelter for those experiencing homelessness in Newark, Wilmington and Middletown when temperatures reach 20 degrees or below. In the more than one dozen years the program has been in Newark, Friendship House has had up to eight area churches open up their doors and provide sleeping arrangements.
‘Tomorrow is a new day’
After 30 years spent at Friendship House, Marcus will retire in May, and he and his wife plan to spend their next several years seeing where their RV will take them. As he prepares for the next chapter of his life, Marcus occasionally reflects on some of the many people who walked through the doors of the Newark Empowerment Center, whose stories evolved from despair to hope.
One story was that of a woman in her 60s who had once established a career working at a bank and raising a family in a middle-class lifestyle. After being laid off, her life crumbled, and she spent her days along Main Street and her evenings sleeping in hallways and on people’s couches. During most of her visits to the Newark Empowerment Center, she was disruptive and promptly asked to leave. She was a frequent visitor in local court for various infractions in Newark, and was eventually moved to a mental health facility.
“After her stay, she returned to the Newark Empowerment Center to visit, and our manager at that time – who had known the woman for several years – did not recognize her,” Marcus said. “She told us that she was slowly piecing her life together and had moved to transitional housing.
“That’s what Friendship House and the Newark Empowerment Center do. We tell people that ‘Tomorrow is a new day and tomorrow could be the day something different happens.’ We walk with people as much as we can.”
“The most common question I am asked in regards to Marc’s retirement is, ‘Who will replace him?’” said Friendship House Executive Director Kim Eppehimer. “My answer? No one. Marc is a very special and unique person to me and our organization, and although many of his day-to-day responsibilities will be parceled out and shared with colleagues throughout our organization – and we will indeed hire appropriate staff to carry this load – no one can take the place of Marc Marcus.
“From his humble leadership to his incredible gift of grace, Marc has made me a better person, our organization more gracious and loving, and all those he touched along the way more aware of the beauty of themselves and those around them.”
“Whether it is Friendship House or the Newark Empowerment Center, we treat everyone who arrives with respect and dignity, and we want them to know they have a place to come to, especially at a time when they have no place to go to,” Marcus said. “Many feel shame about having to come here. Many feel they do not matter. Many feel they don’t deserve anything. We are here to help them build back all they want to work on in whatever areas we can.
“This is a place where everyone is valued.”
The Newark Empowerment Center is located at the Newark United Methodist Church, 69 East Main Street. To learn more about the Center and Friendship House, call 302-652-8133, email [email protected], or visit www.friendshiphousede.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected]