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Rock Church East County partners with East County Transitional Living Center
By Shawn Maree McCowan

Dinner. Movie. Popcorn. Hot chocolate. Fuzzy pajamas. Warm blankets. Ordinarily this would be the recipe for a cozy family evening at home, but instead it was the recipe for an outreach to families making the transition from homelessness.

Under chilly but starry skies, members of the Rock Church East County partnered with the East County Transitional Living Center in El Cajon to host a family-friendly movie night Saturday, November 17, 2012. The evening featured games, a pajama contest and a movie, along with free hot cocoa, candy and popcorn. Volunteers were encouraged to bring blankets and jackets to distribute to those in need for the coming colder winter months.

The event was one of many joint efforts that RCEC pastor Ricky Page hopes the two ministries will develop together as he awaits the formal opening of the East County satellite of Rock Church. “I feel like it’s the beginning of a partnership,” said Page. “This is all about partnering with an organization that’s already serving the community as opposed to us coming in here and starting from scratch, trying to build a foundation from nothing.”

Don Tendvahl, director of development at ECTLC, said that since its founding in the summer of 2003, the center has helped 5,500 to 6,000 people make the transition from homelessness to stability. Although the center can provide the necessary basics, those going through the program really need interaction with others who demonstrate they care about them, he said. “We feed, clothe, house and counsel anywhere between 250-300 people every day,” said Tendvahl. “When the people come here they’ve been homeless, they’ve been incarcerated, they’ve been addicted to drugs and alcohol, they’ve been abused and the women have been belittled. When you’re told that you’re worthless and useless you eventually start to believe it. So it’s one thing for me to tell them that I love them. I see them every day. They need to know that total strangers--people from outside of this program--love them. So I see the Rock being able to come and mentor, to just love on these people, which will really help them to get back on their feet.”

For movie night, many attendees were invited from the surrounding neighborhood as well as from the center. There are three hotels within walking distance, and many of the residents struggle to survive daily, said Tendvahl. The stories of the transitioning homeless at the center are as varied as their names. Deona O’Grady has been in the program since 2007. Not only has she become a Christian, but her life has “completely changed,” she said. “The program means everything,” said O’Grady. “I have my daughter in my life now, I have a job, my mind is working properly again. Being out there -- couch surfing, living from home to home and being on drugs--you don’t ever think you’ll ever get away from it. I’m just different now.”

Another resident, Nicole Wansa, has only been in the program nine months, but already she is sober and even has her daughter living with her at the center. “Not only am I sober but I’ve got my relationship back with my daughter,” said Wansa. “She hasn’t lived with me in quite some time, she was living with my mother, so it’s restoring the relationships with my family and with a lot of people I haven’t had a relationship with for a long time.”

Courtnee Sherman, 21, her father, mother and three siblings ended up at the center when their housing plans after moving from Redlands fell through. “We ended up living in the car for a month, close to 2 months,” said Sherman. “We’re in transitional housing until my mom can get on her feet. Because of (ECTLC) we’re able to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. When we were staying in the car we had to worry about what we were going to eat, like, 10 minutes from now because we didn’t have anything.” The entire Sherman family received badly-needed jackets that night, she said. Volunteer Sonia Sturgeon, who helped to coordinate the outreach, said that her initial idea of handing out blessing bags to the homeless blossomed into the partnership with ECTLC by God’s doing. “When I got here it changed my life completely,” said Sturgeon. “When you come to a place like this you realize (they are) just somebody who made a bad decision or is in a bad place or circumstance. But the same God that healed me is healing them.”

Page agreed that while donations of money, food and clothes help, the personal investment of time most clearly demonstrates love. While he waits for the building of ECRC, he plans to involve several other Rock ministries to “bless the socks off these people” such as the coupon, jobs, and sports ministries. “Tonight was all about investment,” said Page. “Though we didn’t do a gospel presentation, there was a lot of the love of Jesus being spread around, and not to mention a lot of little guys and girls who are going to be warm from now on.”