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Features - Posted March 24, 2017 10:07 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

Creating Change

The Panhandle Adult Rebuilding Center restores dignity to local homeless population

Christy Graham is 63 years old. Peering through no-nonsense glasses, with strands of her graying hair feathering her face, she leans over an adult coloring book. “I was a horrible color-er when I was a kid,” she says with a grin. “I couldn’t stay in the lines. But by golly, now I can!”

That long-lost ability to color surprised Christy when she first sat down at a fluorescent green table at The Panhandle Adult Rebuilding Center, or the PARC. Located in a small structure on Sixth Avenue, west of the Chase Building, the PARC is a cozy hive of activity. Soft music plays over the speakers. The air is rich with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. At another table, adults are talking to each other while they paint. Outside, a woman hammers a design into a small piece of sheet metal.

Christy didn’t know adult coloring books existed until she came to the PARC. These books include a vast array of kaleidoscopic designs and abstract patterns, but Christy says her favorite things to color are whales and dragons. “Whales because they’ve been around since the beginning of time and they amaze me,” she says. “Dragons because they’re mythical and I can’t get them out of my head.”

She is articulate, thoughtful, and homeless. She arrived in Amarillo in January after having lived in Dallas since the 1970s. For three decades, Christy lived with her mother, whom she describes as “her best friend.” Then, six years ago, her mother died. Christy has been homeless ever since. She’s a one-day-at-a-time alcoholic and a recovering addict. For a while, she lived in an apartment with a roommate, until discovering the roommate had a gambling problem. “She lost her money and couldn’t pay rent. We got evicted,” Christy says. The eviction brought her to Amarillo.

Peace and security are what bring her to the PARC every Tuesday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. “I’m here all day, every day,” Christy says. In the process of getting an apartment, she stays in a local homeless shelter at night. When the shelter closes in the morning, she comes here. “Out there, being homeless, it’s very scary. I get lost out there. Here it’s relaxing. You feel like part of the community.” She struggles to find the word, then it’s there. She smiles. “I feel un-homeless.”

She says the PARC offers her a respite from the negativity and stress she sometimes encounters at the shelters. Christy loves crafts and loves to read, and the PARC provides a place for her to do those things in safety.

That’s why it exists.

Starving for Connection
The PARC is a nonprofit started two years ago by Valerie Gooch and Robert Lee. Gooch is a former children’s pastor who serves as the PARC’s executive director. Lee, the director of operations, has a background in business ownership and management. The idea for their organization came when both were working at a local homeless agency.

“They did meals and gave out resources,” Gooch says of her former employer. “We would watch them come to the meal, and then walk across the street and sit there until the next meal. There was nothing for them to do during the day.” Most shelters close during the day, and other organizations ask patrons to leave between meals. This leaves Amarillo’s homeless residents with little to do in the mornings and afternoons. They starve not only for food, but also for human connection and meaning.

Gooch explains that, for the homeless, the daily pursuit of food and shelter can reduce life to little more than a cycle of eating and sleeping. Over time, the stress of survival can lock them up emotionally. “They don’t get called by name. They don’t have time for someone to sit and look them in the eye and have a relationship with them,” she says. “We felt that was the missing link in breaking the cycle and finding confidence to do the things needed to get out of homelessness.”

Until the PARC, Amarillo’s homeless population didn’t have a safe, hospitable place to be productive and creative, a place to engage in meaningful conversation, or even to do something most people take for granted: starting a project and finishing it. “When they come here, we have projects for them to do and classes for them to participate in,” says Gooch. “They can start something and finish it. If they don’t finish it, it will be here the next day.”

Some people paint or color. Others have learned how to knit. One man likes to solder. One volunteer regularly brings wood and woodworking materials to the PARC. “Every week is different depending on what’s on sale at Hobby Lobby,” Gooch says with a smile.

In February, Christy made a Valentine’s Day craft for her granddaughter. “They have an opportunity to be able to give something to someone,” the director says. The PARC lacks storage space for these creations. Instead, Gooch promotes giving to others or thinking beyond their current situation. “Sometimes they make things for when they get a house or apartment,” she says. “There’s a future orientation there. Or if they don’t want it, they can find someone they can bless with it.”

Being Known
While encouraging generosity and creativity, Gooch, Lee, and their volunteers also want to restore the dignity of those who participate. “They say people look at you differently when you’re homeless,” Gooch says. “So for everyone who comes in, we find out their name and introduce ourselves.” Amarillo has no lack of resources for its homeless population (see sidebar), but many of those involve meeting survival needs rather than emotional needs. Lee and Gooch believe emotional health is as important as physical health. The most valuable things that take place in their building may be the daily conversations and accountability it generates.

A few weeks ago, a frequent PARC patron got back on his feet and found his own place to live. Gooch got in touch with him to ask for a small favor. “He said, ‘This is the only place I go where someone calls me by my name and asks me how I am. I’ll do anything for you.’ They can get resources [all over town] but aren’t known. People don’t look at them.”

Being seen as a person at the PARC helps the homeless get back in touch with themselves. Productivity builds confidence. They remember skills or passions that may have gone dormant over the years. Their countenance changes. “Through the classes and relationships, they see there are possibilities other than the cycle they’re stuck in. They step out and start going to interviews or start thinking about other things they can do,” Gooch says. “It’s like they wake up and realize, ‘I don’t have to stay here.’”

Dalton Snell sits at the same table as Christy. This soft-spoken 26-year-old loves to play chess. He has a part-time custodial job at night and is saving his money while he sleeps in a nearby shelter. He spends his days at the PARC. “It’s a cool place to hang out and fellowship with people,” he says. His itinerant lifestyle has taken him from Ohio to Illinois to Oklahoma City before arriving in Amarillo on the bus. “I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere. There’s no pressure to prove yourself.”

Dalton uses the PARC as an anchor, a calming buffer between his responsibilities at work and the occasional chaos on the streets or in the shelter. Others are like him, coming in and out during the day between meals, appointments or job interviews. “We only require that they be sociable,” Lee says. “We don’t let them wear earbuds or isolate themselves. They can stay as long as they’re doing something productive.” He and Gooch refer to patrons as “members” to give them a sense of expectation. While there, they are expected to participate in an activity and in any classes that are offered.

After working and talking for an hour or so, Lee and a volunteer begin arranging chairs for a Celebrate Recovery class. Lee says gaining freedom from addiction is an important step for escaping the cycle of homelessness, and while the PARC has a zero-tolerance policy for users, it’s a policy tempered by compassion. “We try to keep it drug-free,” says Gooch. “If someone comes in high, we will ask them to leave, but they can always come back. We don’t ban people. They never run out of chances.”

Dalton and Christy join the gathering. Volunteer-led classes like these vary every day, from creative writing to jewelry-making to financial literacy. Some take place weekly. Others may only occur once a month, depending on the volunteer. All of them are designed to engage members’ minds while offering something of educational value.

A Person to be Known
The change in countenance visible among members like Christy is an important aspect of their work, but Gooch hopes to see a wider change, too. “I feel like we’re helping to change the culture,” she says. Members begin to find their value when they are shown respect at the PARC. “They also begin to show respect to others, to the building, to our supplies, even to the volunteers who come in to teach. They take that respect out into the community.”

She hopes to see the community change, as well. To start, her volunteers begin to view the homeless through different eyes. “We’re seeing signs of that all over,” she says. “People who look at someone who is homeless start seeing the person rather than the stigma of homelessness.”

By finding fulfillment at the PARC, some members of the homeless population are changing. By having conversations with homeless people, some members of the wider community are changing. “I believe the PARC is a big part of that,” Gooch says. “We’re just people. There’s a person to be known within every one of them. We’re here to get to know each other.”

Getting Involved

Robert Lee and Valerie Gooch are the only employees at The PARC, which is entirely funded through donations. Online financial contributions are accepted at theparc.net, and donations of art and craft supplies are always welcome.

But Gooch says the most important donations are the hours given by volunteers, who teach classes or simply sit with members, engaging in one-on-one conversations as they color, paint or work. “Volunteering here is one of the easiest things, but people have a hard time understanding it,” she says. “People want to do something, but we just want them to sit down and have a relationship and conversation. Sometimes people feel that isn’t valuable but that’s where the magic happens. The power of presence and attention is very powerful. Those are what we need most and are the hardest to find.”

Hours and commitment levels are flexible. Email volunteer@theparc.net to get involved.

A Community of Philanthropy

While she believes the PARC meets a distinct need that had been missing in the city, Gooch has nothing but praise for Amarillo’s dedication to caring for its homeless residents. “Amarillo is a community of philanthropy. People here are different,” she says. A woman from California recently told Gooch how strange it was to arrive in Amarillo as a homeless person. “In California, if you walked into a bank, they treated you like you were going to rob it,” the woman said. “Here, everybody greets me and asks how I’m doing and tells me to have a blessed day.”

Another man once mentioned how, on a downtown street, a local businesswoman had looked him in the eye and smiled at him. He had recently come to Amarillo, and that simple moment of acknowledgment had been exceedingly rare in his life. “I changed that day,” the man told Gooch.

Beyond the kindness of strangers, Gooch has particular appreciation for Amarillo’s police force and first responders. “Oh, my goodness. They all treat those who are homeless with such kindness and respect that I’m blown away. What a wonderful, kind, loving community.”

by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
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