Poverty to Community: How Open Table transforms lives

by Jennifer Powers, Florida Catholic correspondent – August 30, 2017

ORLANDO| A young man, having just aged out the foster care system, clutches a trash bag filled with everything he owns, wondering how to take the next step in his life.  A homeless mother, who has lived in poverty her whole life, wonders how she will ever be able to provide a better life for her children.  A victim of human trafficking wonders how she will be able to heal and start over when she doesn’t trust anyone anymore.  For people like these living a life of poverty, uncertainty and hopelessness, a new model of transformation and hope, called The Open Table, is on its way to parishes throughout the Diocese of Orlando.  The initiative was introduced several months ago when Catholic Charities of Central Florida executive director Gary Tester attended a presentation by the Orange County Commission on Homelessness.

“We were drawn to the program because of its beauty and simplicity,” said Tester. “It’s about the dignity of human life; embracing someone who needs us. Today we have talents, a set of experiences, and a personality. God created us to make a difference in someone else’s life.”

Currently in development throughout the diocese, a “table” will be made up of six to eight volunteers from different backgrounds to play a particular role in mentoring an individual or family. The table members do not need to have a particular skill, only a willingness to support someone through a time of growth and change. Together with the neighbor in need, they set and achieve goals that allow them to create a better quality of life, one that is sustainable in the long term. Table members commit to weekly meetings for one year of meaningful involvement, serving as resource providers, encouragers, and life specialists.

“They are not just a neighbor. The model is designed to build relationships where the people at the table are considered brothers and sisters,” explained Deborah Shearer, director of the Catholic Charities Office of Advocacy and Justice, who will be providing technical support and matching parish tables with the needs of the individual or family.  Eligible individuals and families will be identified through the rapid rehousing and family assistance programs at Catholic Charities of Central Florida.

The Open Table organization out of Phoenix Arizona, founded by Jon Katof, is found in 28 states and the District of Columbia offers training and support to churches forming tables.  Founder Katof calls Open Table a poverty transformation model and explains that it’s meant to support the family or individual long after traditional services end.  According to a 2015 study published on their website, Open Table appears to be working. Program graduates are remaining in relationship with their table partners (95%) after two years, and 85% have better jobs and/or were in college or technical school.  By participating, the study says, table members experience a deepening of their faith and gives them a strong sense of purpose.

A table can be made up of volunteers from one parish or it can be an ecumenical collaboration of different faiths from a particular community, centered around a specific community need.  For example at St. Margaret Mary in Winter Park, Deacon Scott Lindeman is working with several churches in the area to host three tables, one focused on helping young adults aging out of foster care, another for victims of human trafficking, and a third for individuals newly released from incarceration.

“For instance, with a youth who has aged out of foster care, we could provide guidance on how to apply for college.  We could help them find housing and funding for school.  Overall, our goal is to help one person become whole, so that they can live their own lives and have the skills to become independent,” Deacon Lindeman explained.

Tester said that he hopes to have 6-8 tables throughout the diocese, organized and ready to receive individuals by the end of the year.

“I think this is going to become a major movement,” said Deacon Scott Lindeman. “The Gospel message is clear; to love one another. It’s that simple. We are to serve those in need. Jesus served the poorest of the poor and it’s our call as disciples to do the same.”

Look for opportunities to attend a presentation about Open Table in your parish bulletin or find out how you can participate, by calling Deborah Shearer or Alice Nolan at the Office of Advocacy and Justice at 407-658-1818 x-1086.