"This is a dream come true," said Pastor Clara Lett Saturday morning, when the community’s homeless shelter celebrated its grand opening after more than eight years of struggle to finally open.
In 1996, Lett opened Rainbow Covenant Ministries in Porterdale as an outreach for underprivileged youth. The youth received meals and tutoring and through them, Lett had a vision of reaching more people in Newton County. In 2001, The Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter was founded. Originally intended to serve as an emergency shelter for those in need, the volume of residents seeking assistance convinced Lett of the need for a transitional shelter in the area.
In the beginning, the shelter served only Newton and Rockdale counties, but with the influx of people from surrounding areas, it became shelter for those from Walton, Butts and Jasper counties as well. The sheer volume of people in need was mind-boggling for Letts; many had to be turned away because of overcrowding.
Lett and the board members of the shelter began to search for a new location that would be big enough to serve all those seeking help. In 2007, her prayers were answered by then Mayor of Covington Sam Ramsey. Council members of the city also saw the need for a shelter in Covington, and voted to purchase the McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Education facility.
Using proceeds from the sale of Covington Cable to purchase the building and federal funding for renovations, things started to look up for the shelter. Several volunteers also helped to get the building ready.
"This is everyone’s shelter," said supporter Pierce Cline. "And it is everyone’s responsibility."
The Rev. Willie James Smith commented on the shelter as well, calling it a blessing. "This shelter is a blessing to a lot of people and to this community," he said at the grand opening. "We’re here to support Clara and to give her all we’ve got."
The facility goes a step further than just offering shelter to those in need. They also offer assistance, such as classes in parenting, reading and writing, GED, computer, resumes, budgeting, narcotics and alcoholics anonymous, forklift, CDL certification and culinary training. Transportation is also available for residents to attend doctor appointments, search for jobs and go on job interviews and visit the social security office and the office of mental health.
"This is real Christianity out here," said Eastridge Community Church Pastor Scott Moore. "We see Jesus Christ in action out here. And you," he said, turning to Lett, "are a brilliant person. You could have done a lot of things and made a lot more money… A lot of people choose hard roads but don’t stay on them. You’ve stayed and we’re blessed to have you."
Council member Hawnethia Williams, who represents the district that the homeless shelter is located in, called the shelter and Lett an asset to the community.
"The success of us as a people rests on the shoulders of all of us," she said.
Ramsey called the facility one of hope, saying that it was not a place for people who did not want to help themselves, rather for those that just needed a little boost.
"When you feel discouraged and want to lift your spirits, just come out here," he said. "And it will be a blessing to you. Newton County is so fortunate to have a person like Clara Lett. May a lot of mercy be shown in these buildings in the coming days."
Lett wrapped up the presentation, thanking Boy Scout Troop 222 and giving them a standing ovation for their donation to the shelter – 80 beds that the troop members built themselves. She also recognized Quality Inn that donated 152 rooms of furniture and Philip Rush with Suvi Foundation for a donation of $23,000 for kitchen equipment.
She also announced that buildings and classrooms in the facility would be dedicated to individuals that helped take the shelter from a dream to a reality. The women’s building has been christened the Ramsey’s building, and the two other buildings in the facility have been named Eastridge and Doster (after chairman of the board Douglas Doster). The classrooms have been named after Springfield Life Church and Julia A. Porter.
"When people come in here they are all broken and hurting," said Lett. "And it’s the people already here that put their arms around them and make them comfortable – and help them get through this. That’s what we’re here for. To help them get through this and come out made whole."