Three weeks ago, Lawanda and Timothy Howard were homeless.
Their Christmas, however, will be dry and warm, with plenty of gifts for their four children and food for the family.
That's because the Howards are one of three families enrolled in the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Augusta, an organization that uses various member church facilities to shelter families in need. For Christmas, volunteers step up their contributions to provide an experience that parallels holidays at home.
"Each and every need our children had has been provided for," said Mrs. Howard, a mother of two boys and two girls, ages 11, 6 and 5 years old, and 21 months. "Interfaith is a door God opened up. He touched hearts and made this possible. It's something we'll never have the words for the gratitude we want to express."
The families are spending Christmas Week at Wesley United Methodist Church in Evans. It's one of 24 churches that participate throughout the year. As a host congregation, Wesley provides meals, activities and volunteers who spend each night at the church with the families.
"The churches do this 365 days of the year," said Sarah MacDonald, Interfaith's director. "There's an everyday need and they're there to meet it. This organization wouldn't be anywhere without its volunteers. They do so much."
Volunteers shopped for gifts for the seven children staying at Wesley this week.
On Sunday, the three families arrived at Wesley to find that their bedrooms -- classrooms, really -- had been decorated by Sunday school classes. Ornaments and baubles hung from house plants, and garland draped the windows. Stuffed animals were placed on children's beds. There was also a Christmas tree. Volunteers left boxes of ornaments at the base of the tree for the children to decorate later in the week.
On Monday, volunteers took families out to Lights of the South, a lights display in Grovetown with hay rides and hot chocolate. Interfaith donated tickets for the group.
On Tuesday, Wesley teens brought sugar cookies that they could help the children decorate .
Today, the families will eat at Mellow Mushroom, which has donated dinner.
Overall, Wesley will provide more than 100 volunteers this week. Like other area churches, it plays host about four times a year. An average stay requires 50 to 60 volunteers, said Bobbie Jones, a coordinator at Wesley, but "there's something about the Christmas spirit that makes people just want to lend a hand."
The help is needed, said Carol Thomas, also a coordinator at Wesley. This week's group is the largest for the church.
For dinners this week, the volunteers placed three folding tables end to end in a hallway. Interfaith guests normally eat in a family room with a dining room table, couch and television, but there wasn't space to fit everyone, so they moved to the hall.
Wesley volunteers joined parents and their children Sunday for a sit-down dinner of baked chicken and biscuits. They ate with china and silver, surrounded by poinsettias and tinsel.
"Our bit in this is making their stay feel like home," Mrs. Thomas said. "It's so rewarding, especially now when so many families are in trouble." When she started organizing Interfaith groups at Wesley four years ago, the wait list numbered six or seven families. "Now," she said, "there are 90."
The need is so urgent that Interfaith is expanding to create a south Augusta network, Mrs. MacDonald said. Seven churches have already committed, but six more are needed to start.
"It would mean we can double the number of families we serve," she said.
For now, Interfaith serves three families at a time. The program officially lasts for 30 days, but right now the average stay is 60.
Interfaith provides families with day care, transportation, medical and dental assistance, and help with job searches. Eventually, families transition out of the churches into homes, where they live rent-free for up to two years. They're required to save 30 percent of their income as they search for permanent housing.
The Howards have been with the program for about three weeks, Mrs. Howard said. Within days of joining, both she and her husband found jobs with the help of Interfaith staffers.
"Interfaith opened doors for us," she said. "Things are turning around."
She's grateful her children will have plenty to celebrate at Christmas this year. "We are so thankful," Mrs. Howard said. "Love is everything. Love is what loves does, and it's the foundation of what they do here. You can see it in everything they've done."
Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
INTERFAITH HOSPITALITY NETWORK
Interfaith Hospitality Networks operates 150 groups in 39 states and the District of Columbia. They are initiatives of Family Promise, a homeless advocacy organization.
In 2008, more than 125,000 volunteers from 5,000 congregations across the country helped 45,000 children and adults.
Interfaith Hospitality has operated in Augusta since 1998.
Learn more about the Augusta network by calling (706) 364-4462 or see interfaith-network.com.