by M. Diane McCormick
Director, Bethesda Mission Women and Children’s Shelter
When Jillian leaves for Wilson College, culminating a journey from addiction to college scholarship, she won’t go alone. Her friends from Bethesda Mission Women and Children’s Shelter will escort her there.
“We’re all going to get in the van with everything we have,” says Shelley Brooks. “We’re all going to go decorate her room, and we’re all going to put our stamp and our prayers on that door, because we are her family.”
It’s all part of the shelter’s core purpose. “We do whatever it takes, in a professional and loving relationship, to help you find your life, to find God’s purpose for you, and we do that every day,” says Brooks.
Brooks was first invited to work part-time at the new shelter in Harrisburg’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. That was in 1984.
“This is where I’m supposed to be,” she says. “I still love it. I don’t feel like I’m done.”
This sprawling old school is currently home to 22 women and four children. They live here for a year or more, carving private spaces in giant classrooms where original blackboards still hang. Some women graduate to the transition house next door, preparing to step out on their own.
The women come from addiction and spend their days in Bible study, recovery, counseling, nutrition-education, smoking-cessation and parenting classes. They learn to live with two dozen personalities. They learn to live by the rules.
As soon-to-be college student Jillian put it, “The hard thing is hearing ‘no’ when they tell you ‘no.’ The good thing is, it’s like a family.”
Like the loving family she grew up in, Brooks and the shelter family do activities together – shore trips, camping, Hersheypark outings, holiday trips to Bethlehem, Pa.
“Even in the midst of what we have to get through, we can have fun,” says Brooks. “Even in the midst of the worst situation, you have to know that there’s a brighter future.”
Guests, as they’re called here, often rally to support each other. Brooks tries to set a tone of “love where we can love. Be who God has made you to be, and without judgment, without condemnation, help one another to continue to move forward.”
Bethesda Mission has “been dealing with homelessness for 101 years,” says Brooks.
She couldn’t do what she loves without volunteers and supporters. “They give us the space to really delve in and help people change their lives.”
The women’s shelter hopes to move soon to a space double the current size, where women can find emergency housing as well as long-term and where newly homeless young adults can find answers to their question, “How do I do this thing called life?”
Brooks is also pastor of the small Christian Fellowship Church in Harrisburg, not as interested in organized religion as she is in “the walk of Jesus Christ.” In her prayers, she seeks strength for her staff, “that they don’t get tired.”
“I pray for wisdom, and I do pray for us to have fun,” she says. “You can take the hardest situation where women are in your face, women are yelling, words are flying, and yet, you can sit and talk, peeling back the pain like layers of an onion. You start peeling that pain back, and you see a world start to open up and to develop. And man, is that worth it, and the next day you have to do it again, and again, and again.”
This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Harrisburg Magazine