COLUMN: Hope is found in a warm bed and out-stretched arms: One woman is breaking into church doors

Chick Huettel, High Tide
Ann Wallace is shown placing a "Cold Shelter" direction sign for those needing warmth on a freezing night.

Many years ago a group of people from various churches saw what people are not supposed to see in Florida. Adults and children suffering from cold and hunger. Up north and out west it was expected, but in Florida?

They were huddled in tents, in cars parked at stores that stay open all night for safety, and attempting to visit any place that the heat exhaust from a building might offer some relief. It was survival, which was hardly ever seen in the day, only in the shadows and gloom of night. The dignity of “who I am” would cause the homeless to try to be invisible to the public in the day. The homeless, to be blunt, were conceived in the public’s eyes as nothing but thieves and cut-throats.  They were villains and ex-cons, plus women who traded flesh for a green-back. Lastly, the children who did not measure up socially for play time.

But in the background were whole families. Fathers whose menial jobs disappeared when the tourist left and having to face overdue apartment bills. Mothers, who for the desperate safety of their lives and those of her children from uncontrollable domestic male anger, fled in their broken cars. Suddenly in desperation they heard of a new organization where “immediate need for survival” and no waiting was opening. 

The  small organization, under the auspices of Opportunity Inc., (charity organization) was  at last founded. No fancy name was attached to  the endeavor …  it was simply, “The Cold Night Shelter.” Churches throughout Okaloosa opened their doors and to date have been servicing the homeless for 13 years. Destin United Methodist Church opened  their doors on Dec. 9. But Walton County was trailing behind. The perception was that there was no need; there were no homeless. Finally  the Coastal Branch Library in south Walton  became a “Temporary Cold Shelter,” staffed by volunteers.

Enter Ann Wallace. A successful retired business woman. With all the years of dealing with the public both affluent and the humbled,  she found her calling. The community was good to her and now she would take the poor, cold, abused, hungry, and ill clothed  into her life. By into her life, I mean she saw the church buildings in our area that locked their doors at night. The church doors were  bolted  for security but also barred when the desperate search for heat and food was paramount.  “Knock and the door, it shall be opened.”

Her quest is attempting to contact churches that perhaps can open a door when the temperature drops below 40 degrees or if they have no resources, to offer assistance by having volunteers help man a local center. When the desperate mother, a father and children, or even a veteran come in with humbled dignity through a door of a cold shelter they approach with the overwhelming words of “God bless you. Thank you.”  Some cry in despair. The volunteer gives comfort.

It’s not  a loose cannon when help is offered on a cold night, “rules” are in order to be followed by the “guests,” which are in place and successfully followed. And that is what makes the system work. Ann went on to say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” as she related her story and showed me two small children and a mother staring at me from her computer. Now she wants the churches to open their doors not just for Sunday spiritual services but for what the churches were originally designed for by its founder. Help those who need help.

Ann said give her a chance to call on your church for the “Cold Shelter” organization and let her explain the program, or call her if you just want to do it for yourself.  Even if you just assist for those desperate few when skin-freezing months cruelly blow in, you will feel the “warmth” of reward. A gut wrenching, beyond words personal reward when you see the shaking cold disappear in a person or child.

Contact Ann Wallace at 850-217-7607 or Chris Levenworth at 850-368-0011. They need your help.

Fair winds to ye matey.

Chick Huettel is a long-time Walton County resident, writer and artist. He is a member of a number of local organizations including the Emerald Coast Archeological Society.