One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests
MARSING, Idaho—’Twas the night before graduation, and all through Hope House, everyone was bustling—maybe even a mouse. But one graduate-to-be tossed and turned all night because her heart wouldn’t stop thumping with excitement. Nobody had thought she would ever graduate high school. Another graduate shed tears of disappointment. His parents would not be attending the ceremony—a sore reminder that they abandoned him.
Here at Hope House, a children’s home south of Marsing, Idaho, all special events—graduation, birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas—are dramatic and emotional in a grand way. That’s because Hope House has an enormous family—it currently houses 67 “children” from age 6 and up, not including staff members’ kids—and all come with their own complicated family histories and emotional baggage.
Hope House children are here because their parents gave up on treating their behavioral, mental, and emotional issues, or because their adoptive parents abandoned them, or because they were lost in the system. Many grew up in orphanages overseas, where they developed a guerrilla-style mentality of fending for themselves and battled over meals. After years of abuse and neglect, most kids have severe attachment disorders or PTSD, and several have significant developmental and/or cognitive disabilities.
Hope House, then, has the complicated, challenging mission of restoring and embodying a biblical meaning of “home” and “family” for its children. When these kids first enter Hope House, the first thing greeting them is a giant arched sign that reads, “A Home To Come To.” But to them, “home” means disappointment, bitterness, and loneliness—why should Hope House be any different?
Founder and administrator Donnalee Velvick-Lowry understands these kids well. Born in a now-defunct orphanage in Los Angeles, she spent years in foster care. When she was 11, the promise of cookies, Kool-Aid, and new friends lured her to a vacation Bible school, and she found all that plus something even better—a heavenly Father. “It was the greatest joy,” Velvick-Lowry recalled: “I knew then that as long as I have a heavenly dad who loves me, I could be successful.”
That’s what Hope House tries to teach its children: No matter how dysfunctional their previous families, they now have an ever-perfect, ever-faithful Daddy in God, and a messy but accepting family at Hope House. They do everything together as a family. When they go on family trips, people gape at this odd motley of multiracial children who all call Velvick-Lowry and her husband Ron Lowry “grandma” and “grandpa.”
Now 73, Velvick-Lowry started Hope House in 1973 with a small farmhouse and seven kids. Then she started getting calls from adoptive parents, social caseworkers, and juvenile courts begging her to pick up their “failed” kids. Hope House gradually burgeoned into today’s 56-acre campus with dormitories, chapel, school, gymnasium, sports fields, goat farm, and on-campus housing for staff members and volunteers. Numerous professionals have warned, “You can’t take in children with all these mixed problems and not have anything short of chaos!” She responds, “Well, it works in Hope House.”
It’s not been easy. Visitors come and see beautiful, spunky children laughing, joking, and playing kickball as the sun sets into the river, but Velvick-Lowry points out children who are ill or have difficulty displaying affection: “They’ll tell you they don’t need your love, but then they do all these attention-seeking things asking for it.” Finding good, committed staff members has been a struggle for all 43 years of Hope House’s existence, because working with kids who distrust adults is hard. Several kids admitted to me that they’ll “push the boundaries” of a new staff member just to “see how far they go before they crack.”
Toni Middlebrook is one of the rare ones who stays despite her doctor’s repeated advice to retire: “It’s the kids! I just can’t leave them. I don’t want to be another person in their life who walks in and walks out.” Now 71, Middlebrook has been a constant fixture as the girls’ dorm supervisor for eight years. She’s dealt with their frequent quarrels, gossip, and tempers; listened to their schoolgirl crushes and inevitable heartaches; and loved on them unceasingly, even if they don’t love back.
Middlebrook said: “I used to have my own way of planning and expecting things, but that’s not how it’s like in a family. I first really had to get it into my head that this is a family, not a business.” Her slow, long-term investment has no guaranteed results—but daily, consistent exposure to a Christ-loving family manages to soften some angry hearts.
Aimee, one of the graduates, was hurt when her adoptive parents first sent her to Hope House, but “God showed Himself to me. He’s really shown me where I need to look to. I’m in awe every day that He chose to save me.” This 18-year-old with lavender eyeshadow, liberal fist-bumps, and a loud, infectious laugh burst into tears with the rest of her Hope House family when she gave her graduation speech onstage. She plans to become a registered nurse and meet her birth mother who, last she heard, was in jail.
Eighteen-year-old Roman, an adoptee from Russia who’s been at Hope House for five years, remembers with great pain the last words his adoptive father said to him: “I don’t ever want to see you again, ever.” He’s not seen him since. But he also remembers the first time a staff member told him he has a heavenly Father who’s always there for him: “If not for Hope House, I would have never known Christ. Hope House gave me the biggest family I can ever have.”
Hope House is our West Region winner because of its many strengths but particularly because its spirit of servanthood is overwhelming. Self-sacrificing staffers work 60 hours a week and get free housing but are paid little, and don’t even get many thank yous from the traumatized kids they serve. But what would happen to many of the children if Hope House did not exist?
2014 revenue: $1,543,798
2014 expenses: $1,495,933
Net assets at the end of 2014: $2,311,824
Executive director’s salary and benefits: $0 (Velvick-Lowry has never received a paycheck from Hope House other than room and board.)
Staff: 23 full-time employees, 2 part-time
2015 budget: $1,107,603
DENVER, Colo.—Jeramy Butzen walked into Bud’s Warehouse in Denver, Colo., feeling uncomfortable and nervous in his dress shirt. It had been a long time since he’d felt the starchy collar around his neck, but he was hungry for a job, desperate to escape his previous lifestyle of crime and drugs.
A lanky 37-year-old who’s been homeless since 1989, Butzen knew a job at Bud’s was that one chance he needed to become a “good man”—perhaps his last chance. But who would take a chance on him? His hands were jittery, craving the poisons he used to sell and enjoy—but Bud’s director of operations Josh Mahler told Butzen, “We couldn’t care less about your past. What we care about is your present and your future. We’re not looking for the best employee—we’re looking for the employee who needs us the most.”
With hope and relief, Butzen revealed he’s been rotating in and out of jail since he was 9: “I want to turn my life around and end this cycle. I want to be around people who motivate me to be good. This is exactly what I need. Some sort of guidance must have brought me to you!” He got the job that very day.
It’s an unusual interview process, but then, Bud’s Warehouse is no ordinary business. To customers, Bud’s—short for “Building Unity and Dignity through Service”—is a popular, inner-city thrift store selling donated new and recycled home improvement supplies at 50 to 75 percent off retail price. But to its staff, Bud’s is a potter’s shed where broken lives become lives of dignity and worth.
Bud’s Warehouse is part of a larger nonprofit organization called Belay Enterprises, which partners with area churches, local ministries, and businesses to develop faith-based ventures that produce both social and financial profits. Bud’s is the first of Belay’s many social enterprises: Others are a baby thrift store that employs low-income single mothers, a custom cabinet-building shop that employs ex-inmates, a donated car repair shop/mechanic training program, and a specialty coffee shop that trains and employs young adults struggling with homelessness.
All these projects follow a similar business-ministry model. Bud’s, for example, has since 1994 hired and trained men and women who struggled with addiction, homelessness, and prison. It self-funds an intensive six-month job-training program that provides its seven trainee/employees a diversity of job skills such as proper work ethic and using the forklift, life-coaching on healthy lifestyles and career goals, and addiction and spiritual counseling.
“We know we won’t fix or cure anybody in six months,” Mahler said, and that’s not what Belay is about: Belay creates “launching pads” for individuals who have been out of the working world for years and decades—people whom most companies will never hire. About half of the employees graduate and find jobs—and some who fall come back and start again.
“This place is fundamentally about grace,” said executive director Jim Reiner, who once entered seminary only to have his entrepreneurial spirit direct him toward another ministry model: “It’s God’s grace that rescues, rebuilds, restores, and creates more missions of helping others. It’s grace not just for the afterlife, but also for reformation in this world. We live in a culture that’s not about grace, so we get to show the world what ultimate grace is about.”
Exposure to faith is constant and comprehensive. At Bud’s, each day begins with devotion and prayers. On a recent Wednesday morning, group members read Psalm 90 together, then talked about their week and asked for prayers. Keon, a young man with a comb stuck into his Afro, was excited about finally saving enough to purchase a used car. Don, nicknamed “Superman” for his gung-ho, can-do attitude, smacked a heavy fist into his palm and proclaimed, “God is good, all is good. I’m ready! I’m a soldier. I’ll ride into a tornado.” One woman simply said, “I’m blessed.”
Anthony Chavez got emotional as he said: “Five years ago, I was a wreck. I was a recovering alcoholic and my son was taken away from me. But things are looking up. God’s looking after me.” Chavez used to have problems showing up to work on time, or showing up at all. Now, he’s employee of the month. Once a self-admitted “hateful” man attracting relationship conflicts, Chavez turned out to be a charismatic salesman—customers love him and his stories about how God turned him around. That morning, he scored a $1,900 sale with a couple from Wyoming, and even sold a used toilet. He was ecstatic, his morale pumping: “If you can sell a used toilet, you can sell anything!”
Employees like Chavez have turned Bud’s into a living testimony. Some customers take notice and wonder, “There’s something so different about this place.” Bud’s employees are eager to explain why, directing customers to Belay’s mission statement or sharing testimonies of their own.
“Something magical is happening here,” said warehouse manager Chris Middleton. “Lives change here.” The quick-witted, goateed Middleton graduated from Bud’s job-training program in 2012 after his alcoholism earned him five DUIs and jail time. Feeling utterly hopeless and helpless, Middleton remembers crying out to God for the first time in 20 years. He believes God answered by leading him to Bud’s, where he dropped the bottle and found full-time employment, a wife, and “self-identity in God.” Today, Middleton plays a “big brother” figure to his employees, many who look down on themselves the way he did with self-hatred, shame, and worthlessness: “My job is to see the gold in them.”
Middleton now has his eye and prayers on Butzen, who’s been showing up early for work since he started three weeks ago and asking lots of questions about Christianity. Recently, Butzen became fixated on Hebrews 3:4, which he scrawled onto the whiteboard sign by Bud’s entrance: “Of course, every house is constructed by someone, but the one who constructs all things is God.”
Pondering the meaning of that verse, Butzen, who had never known a happy home, said: “I think Bud’s is my home and house. This place is why I’m alive today.”
2014 revenue: $938,486
2014 expenses: $940,188
Net assets at the end of 2014: $558,799
Executive director’s salary and benefits: $105,187
Staff: 11 full-time employees, 13 part-time
2015 budget: $1,151,700
Listen to Kristen Eicher’s report on Hope House on The World and Everything in It.
Read profiles of other finalists and runners-up for the Hope Award for Effective Compassion.