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Karen Olson taps religious groups to help the homeless


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“Unfortunately, you cannot talk about homelessness without talking about housing,” she says. “Most of the families who come to our program are spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent.”

One medical bill or car repair, she points out, can put a family on the street.

But what has also remained constant is the group of volunteers – currently 160,000 strong – that participate in the organization’s mission through its affiliates.

While it is slightly more challenging now to recruit volunteers – due in large part to declining membership in some congregations – the organization’s congregation-based model makes it relatively easy to find a helping hand.

“I think one of the reasons we have been able to grow is because people really do yearn to make a difference,” she says.

Even after 25 years, her job is still incredibly rewarding. And with more than a half-million beneficiaries of Family Promise – 60 percent of them children – Olson says that tangible differences are being made.

“I know lives are changed,” she says.

And it's not just the lives of those who have regained their independence and found housing. It is also the lives of those who volunteer, the congregants who link faith and social justice together. Every now and then, Olson will hear from a pastor who shares how the spirit of his or her congregation was transformed through the service opportunities.

“The most rewarding part is seeing people caring about people,” Olson says. “You just have to provide a way for people to get involved and make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

Olson sees a very basic lesson in Family Promise: “It shows that we really do care about one another.”

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