Mission Possible

Homeless Outreach Center Cares for Body, Mind

story and photos by PAUL CATALA

Jason Garland says he stops in at The Mission of Winter Haven daily just to get the basic necessities not found on the streets, namely food and a shower.

As he relaxes on a couch inside, Garland reflects on how his life has been enhanced through the care and generosity of others. It’s through the goodness of others that concern Garland and hundreds of others every week find safety in the walls of what was originally a home built in 1916.

Founded in 1977, The Mission of Winter Haven, 180 E. Central Ave., is a faith-based, nondenominational shelter for the homeless, providing daycare, meals, showers, clothing, hygiene, enrichment classes, prayer and mental health counseling to those of any age who seek them. 

Everything The Mission offers makes a tremendous difference in Garland’s and others’ abilities to cope with the day-to-day rigors of eking out a living or in some cases, a life. 

“Not only do they have showers and food, but it’s a place you can come and vent,” says Garland, 43, a cook and handyman originally from Greenville, South Carolina. “Here, they take time to understand what you’re going through, and I’m very appreciative.”

It’s that ability to make an impact and make changes in the lives of those whose fortunes are on the downslide that motivates David Berry. Since 2005, he’s been serving those in need from the rooms of The Mission, first as a volunteer serving meals, then as a youth pastor and associate director from 2005 to 2007, then as the facility’s full-time executive director since 2007. 

Under the guidance of former Executive Director Pastor Tom Beauregard, who died in 2018, Berry has taken the rod and staff and guided The Mission and along with its mission: “To provide an immediate response of food, support services and a day center for homeless individuals and all in need; by way of Faith, Community and Helps.” 

Along the way, Berry has seen his share of the down and destitute come through The Mission doors and has also seen some of those same folks leave with positive outlooks and better lives ahead. He works with a paid staff of five, as well as about 15 volunteers and members from approximately 200 churches across Polk, to provide meals, a food pantry, showers, changes of clothing and support services.

With an operating budget of about $400,000 per year via financial donations, The Mission provides about 200 meals per day, 25 families with groceries and 300 to 400 individuals with assistance — children, teenagers, siblings, single parents, grandparents, low-income residents, the elderly and the homeless, of which there are currently about 135 since January.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., there are no overnight services or accommodations at The Mission for its clients, which Berry refers to as “neighbors.” 

“Anyone can walk in and we ask what they need help with. There are all these layers of life. Sometimes, people aren’t able to get a job with no Social Security card, ID or they’re just mentally unstable. And by working with them on a day-to-day routine, we’re also able to address them on a spiritual basis,” says Berry, 46, who lives in Winter Haven with his sons Caleb, 12, Jayden, 13, and wife Arlene, The Mission’s administrative director since 2005. 

“We evaluate them for their needs, and if they need more professional counseling, we refer them upstairs.”

“Upstairs” at The Mission is where Nakita Scott is found. Scott is the clinical director for Grace Counseling Services of Winter Haven. Housed on The Mission’s second floor, Scott – a former counselor with the Polk County School District’s Hearth Project — is credentialed through insurance companies, doctors’ offices and social services organizations to provide mental health counseling. Along with three counselors, she personally visits with about 13 clients per week, 30 or more total in the office.

Scott says at The Mission, she’s able to meet with clients without restrictions or requirements, giving them the ability to discuss personal issues more directly and freely. 

Among the mental conditions addressed at Grace are grief and loss; relationship issues; spirituality and faith concerns; anxiety, worry and fear; depression; substance abuse and addiction; trauma; parenting; and low self-esteem and/or low self-confidence.

 

Some of the counseling strategies employed by Grace’s counselors are prayer, scripture, Bible study, forgiveness, gratitude, personal identity in Christ, self-love and acceptance and ethical values and behaviors

 

“It depends on their clinical needs, but we’re about meeting the clients where they’re at in life, with no restrictions or requirements,” says Scott, a licensed Christian therapist. 

Part of getting healthier in mind and body is accomplished through a daily schedule at The Mission, where Panera Bread and Publix Super Markets provide breakfast from 9 to 11 a.m. and lunch is served daily from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Besides access to food, those visiting The Mission have access to a computer to check for email, search for work or get tutoring. They also can attend art therapy classes and small support groups for emotional needs or advice. 

As for the future, Berry says there are always new and enhanced programs at the doorstep of The Mission. Among those: 

  • Making stronger case management programs through counseling services
  • Utilizing college interns to assist with operations and support beginning in August
  • Starting an occupational therapy program in 2022
  • Future plans to expand the current Mission home

“These are provided to help the homeless and other individuals to learn to transition back into the workplace, to help move them from just being limited in what they can do to becoming self-sufficient,” says Berry. 

The Central Avenue location is the fourth Winter Haven site of The Mission since 2000, following the use of Beauregard’s home, Rotary Park and the Hill building on Third Street. 

At the end of the day, Berry, his staff, volunteers and most importantly, the “neighbors” of The Mission say its most important function is to get folks healthy physically and spiritually, get them back on their feet pounding the pavement for work and making them functioning, useful citizens and neighbors.

“Hopefully, it helps someone avoid going down the same roads I have,” adds Garland. “I’ve been down those roads,” he says, saying it often seems like people don’t care. 

“But here,” he says, “these people do care.”