Akron's Haven of Rest-When There's No Place Else to Go

From very humble beginnings, this is one ministry that has grown exponentially and has even made a lasting impression on President George W. Bush.
by Carolynn Mostyn

"I walked away from God, God did not walk away from me," said forty year old Dwayne. "I was sleeping right across the street by a telephone pole. One day I decided I was not going to turn my back on God any longer and I walked across that street to the Haven of Rest," Dwayne said. He has now been a resident of the Haven of Rest, in Akron, for fourteen months.

When asked, many people picture a rescue mission for the homeless, as a dark, dreary, and dirty building. However; Haven of Rest in Akron, is everything but that. A cheerful staff, a uniquely designed award-winning building and some of the shiniest floors you have ever seen. "God has provided for our needs," said Executive Director Reverend Curtis Thomas. "My father was a truck tire builder at Goodyear, but he felt the calling of God in his life. He was asked to take over the city mission. He closed the existing mission down and started a new one, moving to a little chapel on Howard Street. That is where the Haven of Rest began in 1943. It was there he followed his calling of ministering to what were then, referred to as 'skid row bums'," Reverend Thomas continued. "As a kid, I remember going down to that little chapel with my parents, Rev. and Mrs. C.C. Thomas, as they ministered to these men. In that little chapel were about twenty-five chairs, an upright piano and a pulpit. On one side of the chapel there was a diner and on the other side a poultry house. As my father preached the Gospel, the smell of chicken filtered through the chapel from where they were stored above the room. Through the thin walls of the diner you would hear, 'Adam and Eve on a life raft' as the waiters shouted the orders to the cook. I remember cots in the basement of our home, where my mother and father would give these men a warm, dry place to sleep and take them to get a 50 cent breakfast the next morning. In spite of this humble beginning my father was excited and he was happy, because he was sensitive to the call of God in his life."

Eventually, the Haven of Rest made the move to the larger building on Howard Street. There was room for a chapel, kitchen, dinning room, auditorium, offices and a few private rooms. Later, with a lot of volunteer labor, there was a new building constructed on Buchtel Avenue. After several years, The University of Akron wanted to expand and use that building. It was then, that the current Haven of Rest was built on the corner of Market and Prospect. Many new additions have been added to house the continuing growth of this faith centered mission.

"I have been on staff since 1957 after graduating from Bob Jones University," said Rev. Thomas. "One week I took off the cap and gown and the next week I was washing dishes at the Haven of Rest. I started by buffing floors, cleaning rest rooms and working in the clothing room. My father was the founder and superintendent. He and Mother served the Lord here, till my father went home, to be with the Lord in 1976. It was at that time, that the board of trustees voted me to become his successor."

There has been a phenomenal growth in the ministry since 1976. A record year of providing meals for the hurting people of the community was then, about 25,000. Currently they are providing 300,000 a year. Back in 1976, a big year was to provide 2000 to 3000 lodgings. Now there are over 51,000 people every year finding a home at this safe haven. In 1976, there was a small room with some clothing and now it has expanded to a total department. Now we're able to give away 2.5 million dollars of clothing at used clothing value in a given year. "Dad had six people on staff, where today we employ ninety," Reverend Thomas continued. "Back in those days there were maybe 50 to 100 volunteers. We utilize now, between 700 to 800. The annual budget was $125,000 dollars. With all the gifts today it is a little over 7 million. The amazing thing about this is that we operate strictly on voluntary contributions. We do not use government funding, state aid or United Way money. This is a testimony to what God is able to do."

The old motto of Haven of Rest was, 'soup, soap and salvation'. Things have changed over the years, although soup, soap and salvation are still available, the goal is changed lives. The staff has a great spirit and a mission to treat each person individually. Providing, not only the temporary solution to a persons needs, but helping to heal the whole person. Fifty-two people who have been residents of the Haven of Rest, have gone on to school and pursued becoming ordained ministers. "When they come here they have basic needs of maybe clothing, food or shelter. They are saying 'I need, I need, I need' and that is our first goal, to meet their needs. As we are sensitive to that need, it then opens the door for us to tell them about Jesus and what He is able to do to change their heart and their life," Reverend Thomas explained.

"Eileen, is a registered nurse and directs our women's facility," Reverend Thomas stated. "One day, while giving a tour to nurse volunteers, one in particular caught my eye. I later, married Eileen and we claimed as our life verse, Psalm 34:3. "Oh magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together." We have served the Lord together, here at Haven of Rest for forty-three years," Thomas explained.

"Over the years I have had the privilege of seeing many new programs develop," Eileen Thomas stated. "Toward the end of the seventies we started to have women come in, homeless and needing help we have always worked with men since the inception of Haven of Rest, but this was a new phenomenon. In 1979, we opened the Marjorie Ruth Thomas Harvest Home for women who are in crisis circumstance. We have been busy ever since, taking in women and children who are homeless and helping them become stable in their lives and work through their issues. In the meantime they are hearing about Christ and God's love for them. We hope letting them see that the Lord is good, will allow them to realize, that all of this provision really comes from the Lord, even though there are many people making it possible," Eileen said.

Haven of Rest finds that they are now working with a very young population between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Seventy percent of homeless people fall into this age bracket. In earlier years, the Haven ministered to mostly sixty-year-old, white males who were alcoholics. Today, one third of the homeless population suffers from mental illness. Other problems are drug addictions, emotional problems and some alcoholism. "Most of our people are disaffiliated. They are not connected to families. They have no churches nor are connected to any civic groups. They do not have fellowship with other people," Eileen explained. "Our organization is a Christian ministry first and foremost. We direct people toward a loving God that many times they are not aware of. They feel no one cares about them. We show them someone does."

The first step is to help these individuals get a source of income, whether it is employment or qualifying for disability. It is very important for the mothers and their children to acquire some health coverage and thirdly to help them obtain housing. The nurture center, at Harvest Home provides childcare and learning experiences for the children while mothers attend classes. Nutrition classes are taught by Ohio Agricultural Extension, medical issues are taught by medical professionals and art therapy is helpful for repressed issues that a person may have. Computer literacy, and many more classes are provided along with daily Bible studies. "We try to be a great big Christian family for whatever their needs might be, that we can support them. We are always learning how to better meet peoples needs. We tried an Easter egg hunt our very first year at Harvest Home. We found that the mothers were practically knocking their children down to get to the eggs. We realized that these ladies have never had normal childhood experiences. We now have an egg hunt for the mom's the night before. It is hard for us who have had our needs met throughout childhood, to realize that there are so many adults that have not," Eileen said.

"Reverend Thomas is genuine man," Dwayne said. "I started using drugs when I was eighteen years old. I am the youngest of sixteen kids and my father is a pastor. I have been to a bunch of rehabs and have become clean for eight months or nine months at a time, but go right back out and use again. Just being clean was not enough. I was still empty because I hadn't changed myself. I still had that same old nasty attitude and thought I knew everything. I have been locked up four times in the penitentiary as a direct result of using drugs. I am not just saying this because I am here at the Haven of Rest, I am speaking from my heart. I came with the attitude that if I would turn the effort around that I had put into the streets I could change my life and give it to Christ. I still have a lot of work to do, but I know one day at a time I will get better. I have completed two Bible classes and have been interning for about seven and a half months. I do devotions and chapel services. I get a chance to tell the guys first hand of my experiences in the street and what God can do in their lives," Dwayne continued. "I just want them to know that God is good all the time. I have been here since September 2001, and in a couple of months I will have a job and be on my own again. I thank God for the Haven of Rest and the people here. Everybody here is always giving you an encouraging word and never puts you down. There are a bunch of other places I could have gone, but there aren't any like the Haven of Rest and what they offer you here. It is Christ centered."

Haven of Rest offers day rooms for both men and women. This is where people can come in off the streets and do their laundry, seek help from the social worker and if needed, have over night lodging. "We will give them a bed in the dormitory on a night to night basis and provide as much help as they need. Whether it is food, clothing, one nights lodging or to become a resident till they are able to go it alone," explained Don Haskett, communication coordinator for Haven of Rest. Don retired as a business owner and decided to help out on a temporary basis. Ten years later, he is still giving tours of the facilities. "Residents have their own room and their own responsibilities. Each resident has an assigned job whether it be in the kitchen or the clothing department. They help out in any way they are needed," Don continued.

The learning center and career development center support those residents who need to find employment, teaching them how to find and keep a job. There are classes on reading, communication, math and others that are required for every resident to take. "They must go through the prescribed courses on the computers at their own speed. They can also obtain their GED if they have not finished high school," Don explained. "After a resident has established employment and a place to live, we offer a follow up after care program. They may find themselves in need of some help and support. It is a voluntary program if they wish to participate. Bob and Elaine Hopkins, our after care coordinators, travel around maintaining constant contact with those who want to participate. They help them get and keep their lives on track. We are open 24/7 for anyone who needs help," Don added.

President George Bush visited the Haven of Rest while on the campaign trail for the presidency. He held a press conference there and when he wanted to help stir the huge kettle of soup, Ertha Miller, cook at the Haven, said he must first put on an apron, and so he did. The next day their picture stirring the soup together was displayed across the nation on the front pages of the major newspapers. The ministry of Haven of Rest truly touched President Bush's heart, as seen in the last page of his book, "Charge To Keep." It states, "While in Ohio, I met two more soldiers in the armies of compassion. Curt and Eileen Thomas, who humbly wash the feet of those less fortunate, as directors of the Haven of Rest Ministries."

Haven of Rest is located at 175 East Market Street, Akron, Ohio. To contact them by phone call 330-535-1563. Their web site is at www.havenofrest.org.

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