"I believe everyone deserves a second chance," says the Rev. Clara Lett, director of the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter in Covington.
Former shelter resident Ryan Ivey took advantage of his.
"It’s just an opportunity,’’ Ivey said of the shelter. "A lot of negative stuff (is) talked about that goes on at the homeless shelter. But really, it’s a great place for people who are down on their luck, if their mind is set on doing the right thing. Of course, there is some negativity around it, but I just want to be the one to show everybody it’s not like that."
At the shelter, Lett has witnessed a number life-changing transformations such as Ivey’s turnaround. She opened Rainbow Covenant Ministries in Porterdale as an outreach for underprivileged youth in 1996, but she had a vision of reaching more people in Newton County.
In 2001, when the homeless shelter was founded, it was envisioned to be an emergency shelter only, but the number of residents seeking assistance convinced Lett of the need for a transitional shelter.
In 2007, former mayor of Covington Sam Ramsey and City Council members also saw the growing need for a shelter and voted to purchase the former McIntosh Trail Early Childhood Education facility on Turner Lake Circle to give the shelter a permanent location; it officially opened there in 2009.
In addition to providing temporary residents a place to stay, Lett said the facility offers classes in parenting, literacy, GED preparation, computers, resumes and budgeting. Residents can take part in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous and receive job training such as CDL certification and culinary classes. Transportation is available for medical appointments, jobs searches and interviews and visits to the Social Security office and the Office of Mental Health.
Lett said the shelter also participates in the Georgia Re-Entry Program. Under the 90-day program – created under the administration of former President George W. Bush – parolees are supervised by parole officers and are supported financially by the state as they make their transition back into communities.
A life recaptured
Ivey, 33, of Lithia Springs, said he honestly can’t say how he ended up at the shelter, but he’s glad he did.
After serving 19 months at Jenkins County Correctional Center on a battery charge that stemmed from an alcohol-related incident, Ivey was initially denied parole in March.
"When you are in prison, and your way out is denied,’’ he said, "it’s kind of all hope is just … it’s just a bad feeling. I felt like I had no place to go after jail. All I know is my counselor called me in the office and asked me if I wanted to go here."
Ivey was given the opportunity to enroll in the Georgia Re-Entry Program.
"If I didn’t have the opportunity, I really doubt that I would be where I am at today,’’ he said. "Now I’m off alcohol; I go to church faithfully. I do a lot of stuff in the community."
"Honestly, God has led me here, is what I feel," he said.
Ivey said after completing the program, he obtained a job, purchased his own a vehicle and got his own place in Porterdale. He credits Lett, shelter board of director’s member Sam Ramsey and Pete Leonetti for supporting him on his journey.
"It gave me a chance to get on my feet. … If it weren’t for that place, there’s no telling where I would be, honestly," Ivey said.
A healing hand
Olivia – whose full name is withheld for her safety – said she stayed at the shelter for a period of time with her three children after coming out of an abusive relationship. She said that when her children’s father was taken out of the home and into custody, she was left with no transportation.
"He was the breadwinner. He did most of everything. That night they took him, I had to do a restraining order and stuff like that, in order to get him where he needed to be until I felt safe," she said.
Olivia said she picked up a part-time job in order to get transportation and make ends meet. She realized that she needed help.
"I just came in on my own. I was in contact with (my children’s) school, and I was talking with the counselor about what was going on in my home. She called some numbers, I called some numbers," she said.
"I happened to call the shelter one night because the power had gone out and I had been struggling trying to keep the electricity on … I didn’t want the kids to be in the dark."
Olivia said with only a quarter-tank of gas, she drove around with her children until she eventually found the shelter.
"I went in and talked to Pastor Clara Lett … she had beds available and told us we could stay there. I only needed it for the night. And it turned out that I needed to go back to her because I was paying the electric bill, but I was struggling."
Olivia said while staying at the shelter she worked with Georgia Legal Services, which assists Garden of Gethsemane residents, to obtain a divorce and gain full custody of her children. She and her family now live in affordable housing and are going to family therapy and counseling. She regularly volunteers at the shelter, because, she said, "It’s my way of helping me heal.
"I got my life back because of the shelter. I had nowhere else to go,’’ she said.
Olivia hopes that other battered women can take heart from her story.
"There is hope,’’ she said. "So many people are afraid to call 911 for the fear that their kids will be taken, because I had that fear, because they are witnessing violence. But no, take control of it, walk away. Less people will get hurt."
Lett said there are many success stories about people who have turned their lives around after staying at the shelter.
She said, "People think all homeless shelters are bad, but that’s not so."