Written by Audrey Sochor
For more than 20 years Chief Brett Lester of the Sandusky Police Department has worked in law enforcement and knows you only get to see the world from the seat you sit in. His has been the seat of a police car, and he considers this viewpoint both a blessing and a curse. Together he and his officers see and experience hurt on a daily basis. He has also witnessed the growing population of homeless in and around Sandusky.
“Being a small rural county seat we have so few resources,” Chief Lester said. “A good police officer is a problem solver. You learn the resources available and you often get creative.”
Through it all he has let his faith guide him, and said even with all the dysfunction and people’s tendency to backslid into criminal activities, he has also personally experienced their behavior change due to their own growing faith in Christ. More than just a homeless shelter, the idea of the Sanilac Rescue Mission was born.
Now all Chief Lester needed was to create awareness of the growing homeless population, and acquire funding to get the rescue mission up and running. Enter the Sanilac County Community Foundation and its Youth Advisory Council (YAC).
“As a police officer he sees every day what we don’t see with the homeless population and near homeless population,” said Joshua Robinson, former YAC social media director and recent Sandusky High School graduate. “And he sees them living in their car, he sees them going from home to home. He sees the kids who don’t know what it’s like to have a safe, stable home. And he shared that with us, and we were just touched by it, and we were like we need to do something about this.”
A YAC is a grantmaking committee of a community foundation led by youth, for youth. Made up of high schoolers from each school district in the county, YAC not only gives out money to nonprofits but promotes volunteerism and raising awareness around community issues.
“The Youth Advisory Council really likes to connect with community,” said Richie Barker, YAC co-chair and incoming senior at Deckerville High School. “It’s where we give our time, talent and treasure in the community. We help everybody and we just really want to get involved with our younger kids and make them better.”
“YAC also connects the students of the county with the adults of the county,” Robinson added.
To the YAC members the Sanilac Rescue Mission project had all the right components. Together Sanilac County Community Foundation and its YAC raised $20,000 in a month and challenged the community to raise another $20,000 with the hope of getting a $40,000 total over two months. “And that just skyrocketed from there,” Robinson said. “I think we’re at a total of about sixty-nine thousand dollars.”
Although helping a rescue mission get started is new territory for the Sanilac County YAC members, fundraising and creating awareness for homelessness is not. For years the group has run Cardboard City, a fundraiser for Eva’s Place, the local domestic violence and homelessness shelter for women and children, and other homelessness projects.
Under federal education law, all children who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” are homeless. According to a recent study from University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions, more than 250 students in Sanilac County are considered homeless – a statistic that shocked Stephen Barker, recent graduate of Deckerville High and former YAC senior co-chair.
“You don’t see it in our county,” Stephen said. “It’s a different problem than it is in a populated area. There was a statistic that it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re living in a cardboard box or on the side of the road. It’s that you’re bouncing from parent’s house to friend’s couch, and that is very common with students in Sanilac County.”
With Cardboard City, Richie said YAC will collect cardboard and create boxes to set up on the courthouse lawn. Kids will then pay a donation to sleep there. Stephen added they also take shopping carts around to houses to collect nonperishable food and other items to donate to the shelter.
The Sanilac Rescue Mission will be open to men, women and children, but prior to it there was no shelter in Sanilac County for homeless men, so the police department was forced to pay for hotel rooms to get them off the street. Stephen said YAC also supported that with Cardboard City proceeds, another thing Chief Lester is thankful for, along with their partnership on the rescue mission.
“Supporting youth leadership is very important,” Chief Lester said. “Preparing our youth to be proactive problem solvers is key to a growing vibrant community, no matter how small or large your community is.”
One of the reasons YAC supports the mission is because it goes above and beyond just providing shelter. Robinson said it will provide life classes, money management skills, alcoholic anonymous and substance abuse meetings, employment services, church services and more.
“There are reasons why people are in the situation that they’re in and solving those reasons is the goal of the rescue,” Stephen added.
Now that churches and other community partners have taken up the rescue mission, the YAC members are unsure of their future role, but Robinson said they still volunteer their time. Just recently he and some other YAC members helped rip out old, dangerous playground equipment at the mission site to clear the way for new.
Robinson, Stephen and Richie are OK with YAC no longer being the front and center along with Chief Lester on this project. For them, YAC and the Community Foundation are facilitators for awareness and connecting community partners with issues. Creating those partnerships is the goal, and their organization will always be open to those partners in the future.
Chief Lester agrees with their viewpoint. “The support of a local community foundation, churches, businesses, and area youth leaders is central to successfully helping solve community problems and issues,” he said. “It’s all about community partnerships. It’s all about people.”
The Sanilac Rescue Mission will be opening its doors this summer to help provide radical hospitality to those in need. Check out www.sanilacrescuemission.org for volunteering opportunities or to make a donation. You can also “like” Sanilac Rescue Mission on Facebook.